Foreign affairs: what can we expect from Obama’s second term?

President Barack Obama, pictured here with Chinese President Hu Jintao, will continue to ‘pivot’ to Asia. EPA/Alex Wong

Sitting in New York, in the aftermath of an American election dominated by a domestic agenda, it is easy to lose sight of both the pressing external problems that the US continues to face, and the impact its decisions often have on a wary international community.

It used to be the case that that the bipartisan character of US foreign policy was so embedded that Americans could justifiably claim that “politics stopped at the water’s edge”. The president would consult the opposing party on foreign policy issues and act in accordance with a broad conception of national interest without recourse to electoral considerations.

Those days are long gone. Foreign policy has become as politicised as any other dimension of policy – and with it the differences in foreign policy between parties more evident.

The expectations game

Since the election of George W. Bush, foreigners have increasingly recognised this growing wedge. Certainly, with a few notable exceptions, large swathes of policymakers and the general public abroad will be relieved, if not elated, by President Obama’s re-election. While recent opinion polls have suggested that Obama’s popularity abroad has declined, it nonetheless remains the case that if foreigners were allowed to vote in America’s elections, Al Gore and John Kerry – like President Obama - would have been elected in a landslide.

Nonetheless, the hefty weight of expectations sits on President Obama’s shoulders. Within hours of the election, British Prime Minister David Cameron made comments suggesting that he anticipated the president being receptive to a more muscular and interventionist approach in Syria; a spokesman for Pope Benedict expressed the hope he would promote liberty and justice abroad; and a variety of leaders, including United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and French President Francois Hollande, encouraged a greater emphasis on climate change.

Shackled by such expectations, what can we realistically expect from a second Obama administration in terms of its foreign policy?

Will we simply see more of the same or will there be notable departures from its prior course, as the administration brings in new staff and retools for the next four years? The answer has two components.

Softly softly

The first part focuses on the general tone the administration adopts and the manner by which it pursues its foreign policy. President Obama’s recognition that the US cannot control outcomes, and can only lead if others choose to follow it, was a hallmark of the Obama administration and is likely to carry over in his second term.

In stark contrast to his predecessor, Obama has consistently adopted both a more multilateral approach and a humbler tone. His comments to American audiences stress the exemplary, indeed unique qualities of the United States, and its capacity for global leadership. But his speeches to foreign audiences are striking in their lack of arrogance – a tendency that formed the basis for candidate Romney’s electoral claim that Obama’s visits abroad early in his first term constituted little more than “an apology tour”.

The roots of this approach stems from the president’s keen recognition that America currently suffers from an “esteem deficit” among both allies and enemies alike – and as a result, a profound wavering in its influence. As he said in his victory speech in Chicago, “We want to pass on a country that’s safe and respected and admired around the world.”

This goal of restoring America’s lost reputation has been a major reason why President Obama has invested so much time, effort and resources in multilateral diplomacy, engaging energetically in organisations such as the United Nations and the World Bank – institutions that George Bush either openly disparaged or tried to dominate. These efforts have come at a price: there has been effective “push back” on numerous US initiatives, with significant grumbling from the American public as a result.

Yet this more patient approach to foreign policy is likely to continue in his second term. Certainly, the oft-rumoured replacement of the very successful Hilary Clinton with John Kerry as Secretary of State suggests as such.

What may change here is the behaviour of some foreign leaders who thought they could outlast the president. Iran, for example, will top the list of issues he has to address. Its leadership, knowing that sanctions will remain in effect, will have to adjust their tactics in view of its continued debilitating effects on their economy. The same is true for Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose support for Obama’s more patient approach on the same issue has been transparently faint.

In sum, President Obama’s recognition that the US cannot control outcomes, and can only lead if others choose to follow it, was a hallmark of the Obama administration and is likely to carry over in his second term.

New threats

The second answer to the question of whether US foreign policy will change concerns the key issues that the president will hope to address – as opposed to those unanticipated ones he will be forced to address. Obama’s re-election ensures that the wind down in Afghanistan, America’s longest and largely forgotten war, will continue. Iran, as said, will top the agenda.

Yet when asked in a presidential debate about the greatest threat facing the US, the president’s response was immediate, predictable and succinct – terrorism. No doubt this played to his political strengths both as the commander-in-chief who bought down Osama Bin Laden, and to the continued security concerns of the American public fed on a steady diet of news about thwarted terrorist plots.

But in another way the answer was surprising for its lack of imagination. Indeed, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy that ravaged the American East Coast, it will be surprising if the president does not renew his efforts to conclude a global agreement on climate change, emboldened by renewed public opinion at home.

While national security concerns – nuclear proliferation, energy security and terrorism – will remain firmly on his foreign policy agenda, they will likely be augmented by human security concerns that now threaten the safety of security of Americans in new ways.

The China pivot

The elephant in the room, and the big question for the next four years, will be America’s relationship with China. These foreign policy choices will be enmeshed in the president’s continued “pivot” towards Asia.

Issues such as any proposed Syrian intervention may firmly pull the President back towards NATO and Europe. But the abiding issue, the most important one of his second term, will be whether America will attempt to create an equivalent organisation in Asia, or to rely on a web of bilateral agreements in addressing China’s increasing global importance.

The answer to this question, in the years ahead, may ultimately be regarded as the sine qua non of president Obama’s second term.