The Changing Face of the Obama Administration at Home and Abroad (3)

In the final installment of this three-part series, I will look at the achievements and assessments of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. The success of any diplomatic interactions inevitably depends to a considerable extent on luck. Summing up Obama’s diplomacy concisely is made particularly difficult by the fact that the administration’s policies are currently in a state of flux.

Foreign policy achievements

Probably the biggest achievement of the Obama administration in nearly a year and a half since its inauguration has been the agreement with Russia on strategic nuclear arms limitations.

A quite different approach to relations with Russia was possible when the new government came into office in January 2009. The United States might well have decided on a policy of containment against Russia, owing to factors such as the head-on collision over America’s plans to deploy an antimissile defense system, Russia’s ongoing drift away from democratization, and its invasion of Georgia—one of a number of acts designed to reassert Russian influence over the country’s previous zone of control. It is likely that many of McCain’s advisors, at least the neoconservative faction among them, thought in this way.

The contending view was that reducing the number of nuclear warheads and the burden they imposed on the budget would bring benefits to both sides, and that with the right persuasion Russia might be a potential partner in dealing with Iran and its nuclear program. The Obama administration chose the latter option, announcing as it opened talks on strategic nuclear arms limitations that it was “resetting” the relationship between the two countries. Although the passage was rougher than expected, in the end the two sides did manage to reach an agreement.

Of course, it is still unclear whether the treaty will be ratified in the Senate. Some critics have hinted that the actual reductions will not be as substantial as the text of the pact suggests. And the United States and Russia have yet to reach any fundamental and substantial agreement on the deployment of missile defense systems in the future.

And yet if the new treaty is ratified, it is likely to become one of the Obama administration’s major achievements, along with health insurance reform. In fact, it can be described as the administration’s only real foreign success so far. It is likely that US–Russian relations would become more stable overall with the agreement in place than without it.

These achievements will probably play very little role in terms of helping Democratic members of Congress in the midterm elections this November. Come the presidential elections in 2012, however, it is likely that President Obama will point to the administration’s three biggest achievements so far—the massive financial stimulus package passed in February 2009, the national health insurance reform bill, and the strategic nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia—as evidence that he deserves another term. Obama will probably try to sell himself to voters as a “can-do” president capable of getting things done.

In pushing through these latter two measures, Obama is seen in many quarters as having demonstrated strength. When the Democrats lost the Massachusetts special Senate election in January this year, many predicted that the health insurance reform bill would not pass. Overtures to the Republican Party failed to yield results. But President Obama persevered assertively with the work of persuading Democrats in Congress, and eventually succeeded in getting the bill passed, albeit by a narrow margin. People grumbled that negotiations with Russia were more difficult than expected, but here too Obama was eventually able to steer negotiations toward an agreement without being blown off course by the controversy surrounding US plans to deploy a missile defense system.

In the early days of his presidency, Obama was sometimes seen as “weak”—a gifted orator but a leader whose conciliatory attitude made him prone to surrender and compromise. The president has succeeded in changing this image to some extent.

Evaluating Obama’s diplomacy

Obama’s foreign policy cannot be easily summed up in a few words, particularly as the administration’s approach to diplomacy is currently undergoing substantial change.

In the early days of his presidential campaign, Obama made opposition to the Iraq war a central pillar of his foreign policy, relying on the left wing or antiwar faction of the Democratic Party for the bedrock of his support. It was the antiwar aspect of his approach that stood out first. His claim during the election campaign that he would be prepared to meet the leaders of Iran and North Korea without conditions was part of this same approach.

At the same time, however, the president regularly emphasized the need to continue fighting decisively in Afghanistan. From the beginning, in other words, Obama was never a straightforward dove. Some claim that the president was forced to take this approach in order to defeat first Hillary Clinton and then John McCain, regardless of his own view. But the Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech makes it more likely that the president believes in the idea of a just war.

It has become clear by now that Obama is in some respects a realist, or that there is a pragmatic tendency to his strategy. In fact, these tendencies were noted from the very beginning of his administration. Obama was quick after his inauguration to contact people such as Colin Powell and Brent Scowcroft. Powell is well known for having officially endorsed Obama during the final stages of the election campaign. Obama reappointed Robert Gates, a famous pragmatist, as secretary of defense, and chose James Jones to be his national security advisor.

In an article published in the New York Times on April 14, 2010, Peter Baker argued that Obama’s foreign policy represented a shift to realpolitik from the human rights-focused diplomacy of Democratic predecessors such as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton (Peter Baker, “Obama Puts His Own Mark on Foreign Policy Issues,” April 14, 2010, New York Times ).

In the article, Obama comes in for praise for his diplomacy at the nuclear security summit involving 47 countries in April this year, where it was widely believed that Obama proactively provided positive leadership rather than simply underlining the differences between himself and George W. Bush. A former diplomat was quoted as saying that Obama’s “legacy in domestic policy is likely to be health care. But his legacy in foreign policy is likely to be this nonproliferation agenda.”

Probably Obama has come to understand the limits of what can be achieved by persuasion. Obama himself has acknowledged that he underestimated how difficult it would be to bring about an agreement between Israel and Palestine, and that his policy of engagement has failed to inspire any cooperation from Iran, where he remains stuck in the same impasse as his predecessor.

According to the Baker article cited above, one major difference between Obama and his predecessors is the weight he gives to relations between the traditional great powers. His predecessors tended to make controversial points like human rights and democracy a priority. Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel has said that Obama will probably be seen as a realist in the mold of the 41st president, George H. W. Bush.

A former official in the Bush administration says Obama’s pursuit of a “great powers” strategy is remarkable for a president with his origins in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party: “It’s almost Kissingerian. It’s not very sentimental. Issues of human rights do not loom large in his foreign policy, and issues of democracy promotion, he’s been almost dismissive of.”

The current tendency is to emphasize the realist aspects of Obama and his foreign policy. However, Obama met the Dalai Lama this year, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a highly critical speech on the subject of Internet freedom. Thus, there remain some aspects of his foreign policy that are less than wholly pragmatic. In Afghanistan, for example, he seems to assign a significance to the war that goes beyond narrow national interest.

It is safe to say that the biggest point of conflict in foreign policy for the foreseeable future will be Iran. Persuading China and Russia to cooperate will be a crucial test for the Obama administration’s “realist” approach to foreign policy. But even if Obama does achieve a degree of support from Russia and China, putting an end to Iran’s nuclear program will not be easy. For this to happen, the administration may have to resort to harsher measures than those normally implied by the word “realist,” or else may be forced into the more difficult and radical option of having to contain (and at the same time coexist with) an Iran that holds nuclear weapons.

One thing is certain: Both at home and abroad, President Obama faces more difficult challenges than he can have expected when his administration took office.

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Fumiaki Kubo

  • SENIOR FELLOW

Areas of Expertise

US political and diplomatic history, modern American parties, policy making, US foreign policy

Research Unit

External Relations