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Nikolay Pakhomov

Political Analyst

The start of the U.S. President’s second term in office, which saw the unveiling of a new foreign policy team and some new foreign policy priorities, provides fertile ground for an analysis of the potential policy/policies that the White House may pursue in the future, bearing in mind the outcomes of U.S. foreign policy during the first term and the myriad new opportunities for this area of U.S. policy. With this in mind, foreign policy success for this, the 44th U.S. President, may well hinge on how the U.S. defines its position in today’s international relations.

The start of the U.S. President’s second term in office, which saw the unveiling of a new foreign policy team and some new foreign policy priorities, provides fertile ground for an analysis of the potential policy/policies that the White House may pursue in the future, bearing in mind the outcomes of U.S. foreign policy during the first term and the myriad new opportunities for this area of U.S. policy. With this in mind, foreign policy success for this, the 44th U.S. President, may well hinge on how the U.S. defines its position in today’s international relations.

President Obama is clearly starting his second term with some significant experience behind him and enhanced room for manoeuvre. The burden of worrying about his re-election chances has been lifted, and he is now free to concentrate on certain, long overdue, changes in a range of different areas of U.S. policy. Foreign policy is worthy of particular attention, since the U.S. president is in a position to do much more in this arena, with his executive powers, without having to seek support from a Congress that seems less and less capable.

For obvious reasons, although Barack Obama’s first term in office was conditioned by the need to address the more pressing problems on the “home front” (such as the financial system crisis, recession, and unemployment), international crises interfered with the U.S. president’s focus on domestic issues. The global role of the U.S. today simply does not allow Washington to step back and be a passive onlooker. And so, as the first term drew to a close, the Obama Administration had to devote increasing attention to foreign policy issues, particularly given the stormy developments of the Arab Spring.

The White House has scored domestic policy successes of which it can be rightfully proud: it has implemented reforms in medical insurance and the financial system, while also maintaining tax benefits for most U.S. citizens. Furthermore, there are signs of growth in construction and manufacturing. Budget expenditure has been slashed, albeit through sequestration. In February 2013, U.S. unemployment hit a record low since December 2008. In March, the Dow Jones Index recovered to historic highs. As a result, the U.S. Administration is now able to devote more time to international issues.

The question now facing Barack Obama is how can he radically improve his foreign policy effectiveness. U.S. foreign policy problems were apparent even before he came to power: more often than not, huge resources and opportunities failed to help the U.S. government reach the objectives formulated by the country’s leadership, with Iraq being one of the most graphic examples of this kind of failure.

Observers and policy-makers may argue about the real reasons for Washington to embark on that invasion (whether it was motivated by international security concerns, the desire to promote democracy, an interest in ensuring control over Iraqi oilfields etc.). However, deeper analysis reveals that none of these objectives have been fully achieved. It was not President Obama who took the decision to go into Iraq. The Iraqi campaign, the 10-year anniversary of which has recently been marked in the U.S., is part of the heavy foreign policy “baggage” that President Obama inherited from his predecessor. Secondly, it is this heavy baggage that came into play when U.S. diplomats in the Obama Administration failed to reach an agreement allowing the U.S. to retain a limited force in Iraq, which would have been in line with their interests in the region.

Iraq and associated issues have now been put on the back burner. The consequences for the United States of not achieving more efficient engagement with China would be much more dire. This is an issue that U.S. diplomacy has been seeking to address for over a decade, and everybody is clear on the need to resolve it. There is no doubt that Washington so far has been allocating all possible resources to this end. The Obama Administration has made efforts in this direction, but it is still too early to call them successful. The list of mutual issues in Washington and Beijing seems to be growing ever longer. U.S. leadership and diplomats have so far failed to have any significant impact on China’s involvement in international affairs, even though it is possible to argue that the latter has been instrumental in the numerous crises in international relations. One such issue to come to the fore recently has been the growing U.S.-China disagreement over the South China Sea and cyber-security concerns.

Relations with China may be a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy, but it is not the only area of U.S. foreign policy where there is an obvious need for qualitative change and greater efficiency. Should Barack Obama seek to address the issue efficiency in earnest during his second term, he will have to define his desired format for U.S. engagement in international relations. This may prove key to any future U.S. foreign policy successes. However, the White House will only be able to define this format if it has a clear understanding of its country’s capabilities.

Photo: wikipedia.org
Nikita Mendkovich:
Iraq: Ten Years After

This may prove an exceptionally difficult challenge. However, the U.S. continues to lead in many areas. U.S. military leadership is universally acknowledged. Despite recent economic problems, America has retained most of its economic potential. Notably, even after the U.S. sovereign rating was downgraded in August 2011, U.S. debt continued to be regarded as the safest investment. The U.S. continues to lead in many areas of science and education (1, 2). And an important added benefit for U.S. foreign policy could yet come from the country’s significant “soft power” capacity.

On the other hand, many observers were right to note that this U.S. leadership does have its limits. One cannot help but notice a certain decline in the United States’ foreign policy capacity. There are numerous challenges with which U.S. diplomacy is clearly not able to cope. They include the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programmes; the Middle East peace settlement; stabilization and normalization of the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan; and efficient engagement with Pakistan and China.

There are two groups of reasons for this decline in U.S. foreign policy capacity.

Recent history has seen a few apparent U.S. diplomatic blunders. And then there is the United States’ weaker economic position. No foreign policy can succeed without certain economic underpinning, particularly the country in question is seeking to achieve or enhance its global leadership. There is a much-quoted statement by Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said that the single, biggest threat to U.S. national security was the country’s debt. However, debt and other crisis-related domestic challenges are not the only problem.

The United States’ “soft power” capacity is being seriously undermined by domestic developments such as the growing political polarization, slower decision-making (at a time when the opposite would be desirable) in order to overcome critical problems in many areas, sluggish economic growth, and the social welfare system crisis. It is difficult for U.S. leaders and diplomats to ponder the global application of the U.S. model of democracy when the political decision-making process in their own country has been paralyzed by squabbles between the Republicans and the Democrats and vital reforms are impeded by clearly obsolete rules in the Constitution allowing for a conflict between two branches of power while not offering any resolution mechanism (such as a vote of no-confidence in the government’s cabinet as in parliamentary republics). It is even harder to preach the overwhelming force of a free market at a time that sees a clearly growing government presence in U.S. economic life, with virtually unremitting efforts to rescue private business with the taxpayer’s money. Significantly, the share of central government expenditure in U.S. GDP has risen steadily over the past decade, and is now twice as large as it is in communist China.

Photo: cfr.org

Secondly, this drop in U.S. capacity for international relations is happening alongside some radical changes in world politics. New complexities, new centers of power and new actors (some of which are non-state) are emerging. Although, on the face of it, they may bear no comparison to the mighty United States, they have, however, been quite good at putting a spoke in the wheels of U.S. foreign policy. It is in this environment, this rapidly changing and entangled world, that U.S. diplomacy increasingly fails to develop effective recipes for action and the country’s attempts at action, based on old templates, only spark new problems.

Barack Obama and his foreign policy team have yet to define the issues the U.S. can tackle with the available foreign policy resources, mindful of their recent decline. The scope of these objectives will underpin the format on which the U.S. will rely in world affairs. Clearly, the history of U.S. foreign policy and its uncontested leadership in certain areas do not allow the country to retire fully from the world scene, if only to avoid new problems. Moreover, by continuing to play a leading role, America may push some of the parameters in the international system today in a way that would benefit itself.

But, as we all know, leadership has its price. Even those states that have been catching up with the U.S. rapidly in certain areas (China is most frequently named the key U.S. competitor) and protesting against U.S. attempts to dictate, as a leader, certain rules in international affairs, are less than eager to assume the burdensome obligations that come with global leadership.

Many international analysts, including those from the United States, have shown quite convincingly that today’s complex world is in need of a leader. With the gap between the United States and the “runners up” in this global leadership race continuing to narrow, there is not a single nation, apart from America, that is willing and, more importantly, capable of fully assuming the burden of world leadership.

The Obama Administration and the entire U.S. foreign policy establishment are facing a daunting task: to develop a foreign policy that will not only protect national interests but will also allow the United States to play, alongside other leading powers (if it attempts to go it alone Washington’s efforts are doomed to fail), this front-line, under-appreciated role of being the key force in forging international cooperation. It is this role that the country is expected to play, given its continued leadership in many areas from its military superiority or the America’s exceptional significance in the global economy.

Photo: RIA Novosti
Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of
the Joint Chiefs of Staff
: Biggest threat to U.S.
national security was the country’s debt

The U.S. leadership is clearly not expected to present its claim to world dominance guided by ideological considerations or ambitions (this kind of dominance is unlikely to be possible in today’s world). On the one hand, the United States’ capacity, even it today’s curtailed form, is such that not a single global issue can be addressed without its active involvement. On the other hand, ill-judged actions on the part of the U.S. are capable of unleashing global crises.

The task facing U.S. foreign policy, given this approach, does not offer up an easy solution. Washington must recognize which regions are of strategic importance for the U.S. and where the U.S. national interests lie, and only then, based on this understanding, can it select the format and degree of engagement in these or other international issues. At the same time, the U.S. needs to be very thorough in structuring and balancing (together with other leading powers) the broader system of international relations. Should Barack Obama succeed in developing and implementing an efficient foreign policy dealing with these two objectives, he would not only have scored a foreign policy success in his second term but would also have laid the ground for efficient U.S. foreign policy in the future.

The increased polarization of American society is reflected in the higher polarization of Congress whose efficiency, grounded in the US Constitution, depends on the joint bipartisan efforts. The failure by US Congress to adopt a proper national budget in four years, and a whole range of pressing reforms, including immigration, US sovereign credit rating, approved sequestration and some other episodes of the US political life lately, seem to point to a much poorer performance by US Congress in recent years.

Translated from Russian. Original text /inner/?id_4=1852#top

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  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
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