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Around the Halls: Obama's First Year in Foreign Policy

As President Obama completes his first year in office, his foreign policy challenges remain a central focus of the administration. Scholars from around the halls of Brookings offer their analysis of the President's handling of Foreign Policy during his first year in office.

In this edition:

  365 Words on Obama's First 365 Days in Foreign Policy
Bruce Jones, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy

The Obama administration inherited an international environment characterized by deep crises, a changed balance of power – shifting toward China, Brazil and India’s favor – and deep distrust of the United States. Providently, the current administration was handed two positives: an improved situation in Iraq and an ironic parting gift from the Bush administration – the Washington G20 meeting, which set in motion the response to the financial crisis but also established the new reality in which U.S. leadership remains vital but constrained by the twin forces of globalization and emerging powers.

In the world President Obama inherited, multilateral architecture is more important than for any president since Harry Truman. Already the financial crisis and the Copenhagen climate negotiations illustrated the centrality of the relationship between American hegemony and the influence of the rising powers. Transnational threats such as terrorism and failed states, which require coordinated international responses, further compel engagement with the rising powers. The question of how the U.S. wields its hegemony in the face of a complex balance of power is the administration’s central foreign policy challenge.

As it so happens, these questions are also central to Obama’s personal worldview. In speeches from Prague to Cairo, New York to Oslo, the president has laid out a compelling vision of how America can operate in a global, multi-actor world. Critics deride the president’s reliance on rhetoric, but on the international stage, his rhetoric has helped shift attitudes toward the United States, giving back what we lost after Iraq – the benefit of the doubt.

The payoff is so far mixed. The ‘reset’ with Russia has improved the situation vis-à-vis Iran, but not yet to the point where U.N. Security Council support for new sanctions can be counted on. Obama’s popularity in Europe helps keep our allies from fleeing a now deeply unpopular war, but it doesn’t generate much by way of serious assistance on the hard fighting there. Rice’s star power at the U.N. has lifted our standing and eased passage of new sanctions on North Korea, but the U.N. still underperforms. There is more work ahead than behind, especially to communicate to the public and a skeptical Congress. Still, on international order, a good first year.

  America's War with Al Qaeda
Bruce Riedel, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy

In 1996 Osama bin Laden declared war on America. Since then his al Qaeda organization has become the world’s first truly global terrorist group with spectacular terrorist attacks from New York to Madrid to Rawalpindi. It has cells from Mauretania to Indonesia. Its ideology has inspired hundreds of suicide bombers and created the contemporary global Islamic jihad, a syndicate of terror organizations that work together tactically. Through the internet it inspires more violence and recruits terrorists inside the United States.

President Obama inherited this war last January and has sought in his first year in office to attack al Qaeda in all its facets. He has made the disruption, dismantlement and defeat of al Qaeda a core American national security mission. Obama has dramatically stepped up drone attacks against al Qaeda’s safe havens in Pakistan where bin Laden is believed to operate. He has more than doubled American troop strength in Afghanistan where we are fighting an alliance of al Qaeda and the Taliban. Aid to countries like Yemen and Algeria where al Qaeda has developed dangerous franchises has been increased. At home the FBI has arrested several suspected terrorists working with al Qaeda or its allies in the syndicate like Lashkar e Tayyiba.

Obama has also taken on al Qaeda’s narrative, most notably in his speech in Cairo, Egypt, where he argued America is not an imperial or Crusader state seeking bases and oil rights in Iraq or Afghanistan. He has supported the Palestinians’ aspirations knowing al Qaeda draws strength and recruits from exploiting their misery. He has sought a new era in America’s relationship with the Islamic world, the ummah, to isolate al Qaeda. He has acted to shut down Guantanamo and ban torture.

Al Qaeda is fighting back. Using a Jordanian of Palestinian origin it blew up a CIA base in Afghanistan at the end of December killing more than in any attack on the Agency since 1983. It tried to attack America directly on Christmas Day with a suicide bomber from Nigeria recruited in Yemen. Its ideology inspired the Fort Hood massacre. In its propaganda al Qaeda tries to portray Obama as just another Crusader aligned with Israel and India against the ummah.

This war will intensify further in 2010. We must expect more attempts to strike at home, more effort to destabilize nuclear armed Pakistan (al Qaeda’s number one target) and a sophisticated and agile war against our intelligence community. America’s war with al Qaeda is now our longest and there is no end in sight. The president is right to make this a critical priority, to focus on the epicenter of the war in south Asia and to take actions to counter its narrative and isolate it within the ummah as the gang of murderers it really is. Neither hysteria nor complacency is in order; steadiness and perseverance should guide Obama.

  Obama's First Year in Foreign Policy: China
Kenneth Lieberthal, Director, John L. Thornton China Center

President Obama wanted to get off to a smooth start in his relations with China, and he succeeded in doing so. 2009 saw the start of a new type of relationship between the United States and China reflecting the acceleration of China’s advance to major power status (and some decline in America’s global position) with the onset of the global economic crisis. In this rapidly changing context, the Obama administration engaged Beijing effectively on both traditional United States-China and new global issues.
Beijing and Washington during 2009 developed compatible approaches to major ongoing issues. On North Korea, both sought resumption of the Six Party Talks on the basis of North Korea’s reaffirming the commitments it had made before the talks broke off in 2008. On cross-Strait issues, both sides supported efforts to enhance and stabilize cross-Strait relations. On economic and trade relations, the two governments consulted intensively throughout the year, recognizing the extent to which economic interdependence required mutual understanding of measures adopted to deal with the crisis. And on human rights, President Obama adopted an approach toward China, as he did toward other countries, of acknowledging differences in political systems and cultures, avoiding public confrontation, and conveying his views in private settings while at the same time stressing the overall importance of promoting and protecting human rights that are recognized in international agreements.

Because of China’s growing worldwide importance, United States-China relations during 2009 also saw such global issues as the economic crisis, clean energy and climate change, and nuclear proliferation move rapidly to the center of Washington’s relations with Beijing. Again, these overall went relatively smoothly.

For example, in the economic arena Presidents Obama and Hu Jintao agreed during 2009 to elevate the role of the G-20 over the G-8, to support restructuring of the IMF, and to make far greater use of the Major Economies Forum. Both also advocated vigorous stimulus packages in the major economies.

On clean energy and climate change, the U.S. and China agreed in mid year to a Memorandum of Understanding on bilateral cooperation, and in November announced seven cooperative agreements on clean energy. Climate change, not surprisingly, proved more challenging, but even there President Obama and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao worked effectively together at the last minute to prevent the collapse of the Copenhagen conference in December. Iran emerged as the most critical nuclear proliferation issue, and China joined with the U.S. and others to support a late November International Atomic Energy Agency resolution condemning Iran’s failure to live up to its obligations under the IAEA.

In sum, nearly across the board United States-China relations advanced during 2009, dealing with traditional bilateral concerns and addressing new global issues in relatively smooth fashion. But while President Obama’s first year avoided the rocky start that has typically characterized U.S.-China relations in the beginning of a new U.S. administration, far more difficult decisions will have to be made during the coming twelve months in virtually every one of the above issue areas. The longer term texture and prospects of U.S.-China relations under President Obama will, therefore, become clear only as Year Two unfolds.

  The Challenge of a Nuclear Iran
Suzanne Maloney, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy


The Islamic Republic of Iran has a way of turning the best-laid plans of American presidents into foreign policy fiascos. When he entered office a year ago, President Barack Obama launched an ambitious effort at engaging Iranian leaders in a comprehensive diplomatic dialogue. Hoping to resolve international concerns over Iran’s nuclear activities and transcend the three-decade bilateral estrangement, Obama dispatched private messages and re-tuned U.S. public diplomacy to draw Tehran to the table, while boosting cooperation with other key powers and shoring up the resolve of skeptical regional states.

The outcome of Obama’s efforts were always uncertain; each of his predecessors had dabbled at engaging Iran to little avail and the urgency of the threat persuaded the President early on to announce a year-end expiration for his offer. Midway through that year, however, the landscape for U.S. policy suddenly mutated with the improbable landslide reelection of Iran’s hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the eruption of the country into unprecedented protests. Those events dramatically altered the balance of power in the Islamic Republic and turning the longstanding American dilemmas about dealing with Iran into a potentially intractable challenge.

In the wake of the June uprising, Washington’s opportunities are fewer and its pitfalls are more ominous. Iran today is enmeshed in a period of epic flux – its political class riven by bitter, possibly irreparable differences and its streets roiled by continuing small-scale unrest and civil disobedience that have withstood the regime’s attempts to repress it. Under the weight of such tensions, some kind of change within the Islamic Republic is almost inevitable, but what kind of change and on what timeline is effectively impossible to predict. This context adds infinite complications to Washington’s efforts to fashion a policy that stalls the revolutionary state’s frantic race toward nuclear capability.

Heeding the President’s promised timetable, Washington is now pivoting away from diplomatic engagement to embrace a more coercive policy centered around economic pressure. The turn toward sanctions is a predictable one. Sanctions have proven a reliable instrument of American policy toward Tehran for the past thirty years, but their protracted duration only underlines their limitations as a mechanism for categorically revising Iranian policy. The prospects for some multilateral cooperation on new economic restrictions are better than at any time since the revolution, but even this newfound harmony on Iran is only expected to produce modest new measures at the United Nations Security Council.

Achieving the right balance between pressure and persuasion is fraught with countervailing concerns about the capacity for diplomacy to induce a historic compromise from a regime primarily concerned with its own survival. Would negotiations legitimize an ever more odious and unstable Islamic system? Would sanctions merely generate greater obstinacy from a leadership that perceive itself under siege from a domestic insurrection orchestrated by their longstanding enemies?  And how would any course of action impact public sentiments and support for the still-evolving opposition movement? And at what point will Israel’s existential fears surpass American willingness to avert the calamitous repercussions of a military strike on the nuclear infrastructure?

In the midst of this uncertainty, Obama has done modestly well on Iran so far; by offering creative solutions for confidence-building on the nuclear issue and raising the prospect of new muscle on multilateral sanctions, the administration has avoided some of the historical hazards and put forward a compelling diplomatic framework for dealing with the Iranian regime. But the nuclear program continues unabated, and the prospects for any American president to get Iran right, after all the years of botched U.S. tactics and in the midst of an ultimately unpredictable process of internal Iranian change, are alarmingly low.

 

  Obama's First Year in Foreign Policy
Michael Fullilove, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy

How should we grade Obama’s foreign policy in his first year in office? It depends on the measure you choose to apply. If you assess his record against the expectations generated by his campaign, which is how his partisan critics proceed, then things have not gone accordingly to plan. The planet has not cooled. Ocean levels have not fallen. Cuba has not applied to join NATO. The international system has not proven particularly susceptible to change, regardless of the eloquence of its advocate.

However, you get a different answer if you use a historian’s measure, and bear in mind the structural limitations on Obama’s power and the disastrous situation he inherited – two bloody wars, a global financial crisis, active nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea and persistent terrorist threats. If this is your analytical frame, and you ask how any other individual might have done in his position, then Obama’s foreign policy looks pretty good.

First, some negatives. Obama was overly ambitious in his first year, launching a number of initiatives that have come to naught. His signature note – engagement with America’s competitors and adversaries – has been held a little too long. Reaching out to China and Russia has produced mixed results; reaching out to trumped-up tinpot dictators has produced nothing. Finally, the president has struggled to strike the right balance between counter-terrorist imperatives on the one hand and his liberal instincts on the other.

On the other side of the ledger, a welcome pragmatism was evident in a number of Obama’s big foreign policy decisions, starting with his appointment of his defeated opponent, Hillary Clinton, as his secretary of state.

Obama’s Iraq exit strategy looks, so far, to have been prudent and well-executed. His record on trade has been reasonable, certainly compared to the prevailing sentiment amongst his Democratic colleagues on Capitol Hill. He has demonstrated an early and strong commitment to Asia.

The president’s preparedness to use force – for example, his expansion of drone strikes against militants in Pakistan – has been one of the less predictable elements of his foreign policy, given the strong signals he sent during the campaign about the need to rebalance US policies away from a reliance on force. The decision to deploy an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan – the second major deployment to that country since he assumed office – demonstrated real courage.

Finally, Obama has shown a steady temperament under fire, and he has achieved a new tone in US diplomacy. He has helped to shift global perceptions of America.

Obama has yet to be fully tested by a full-blown crisis, and he faces enormous challenges in the two countries in which the United States is fighting nasty wars (Iraq and Afghanistan) and a third where it may still have to do so (Iran). The administration will also find it increasingly difficult to square the circle of human rights and national interests. Yet he has established a promising foreign policy template.

When he was asked recently to grade his own performance in the White House, Obama gave himself a ‘solid B-plus’. This former law professor is a fair marker. 

 

  Obama and Latin America: As Time Goes By
Kevin Casas-Zamora, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy

You know that Latin America is not a top priority for U.S. foreign policy when the past year’s most talked about hemispheric moment revolves around two presidents and a book (a Latin American president who hasn’t read much gave a book that no one reads anymore to a U.S. president who doesn’t have much time to read). Indeed, President Obama’s participation at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad & Tobago - which included being the butt of Hugo Chavez’s curious book stunt - is the closest thing his administration has come to hitting the reset button with Latin America. At the close of its first year in office, the Obama Administration’s outreach to Latin America is modest at best.

This was preordained. The challenges that Latin America poses for the U.S. simply lack the urgency of those coming from other regions of the world. In an era in which national security concerns almost entirely define foreign policy, it is clear that no mushroom cloud or global strategic threat is likely to emerge from a Latin American nation. Of course, this is not to say that immigration, trade, energy security, organized crime, democratic governance, and the decades-long conflict with Cuba are not important issues – each is the stuff that defines U.S.-Latin America relations today. Quite to the contrary, they are crucial and have a decisive impact on everyday life in the U.S. It is just that when it comes to foreign policy, the urgent trumps the important every time.

Sadly, the improved tone of U.S.-Latin American relations achieved by President Obama in Trinidad has yet to lead to any substantive breakthroughs on any issues that matter to the Western Hemisphere. A comprehensive immigration reform remains but a distant prospect in the U.S., despite the assurances of the President. The current unemployment rates have rendered unpalatable any effort on this front, not to speak of any attempt to activate the hemispheric trade agenda, stalled after years of real progress. More attention has been bestowed to the issues of organized crime and drug trafficking, mostly due to the all too visible carnage in northern Mexico. U.S. national security concerns once again have managed to derail other objectives. Despite the Obama administration’s significant gesture acknowledging U.S. contributions to Mexico’s burgeoning organized crime problems, the U.S. has done little or nothing to institute new policy approaches to combat the narcotics trade. While the domestic and international debate questioning the so-called “War on Drug” continues to boil, it has yet to make any inroads in Washington’s official responses to the trafficking and use of illicit drugs. For the time being, the Merida Initiative, meant to help the Mexican government wrest territorial control from the cartels through military means, continues to be the flavor of the month. A real hemisphere-wide conversation between drug consuming, drug producing, trans-shipment, and money laundering countries, which ought to be led by Washington, remains a pending assignment.

In 2009, democratization issues had their moment under the sun when a complicated power dispute led to the ousting of a legitimate (if erratic) president in Honduras by a civil-military coalition. The bizarre political standoff that ensued will not go down as a happy page in U.S. diplomacy. While the initial reaction of the Obama administration was swift, clear and, most importantly, on the side of democracy, the following months provided a testimony of the inconsistency and limited relevance of Washington’s policy towards the region. For all practical purposes, the episode ended with a presidential election in November that restored a sense on normality to the small Central American country. Yet, the fact that, for the sake of expediency, the U.S. ended up caving in to all the demands of a reactionary elite hell bent on preventing any political or economic change in Honduras left a bitter taste in the mouth of many Latin Americans. Expediency also seems to dictate the administration’s deafening silence with regard to the increasingly authoritarian behavior of Hugo Chavez’s regime in Venezuela. Whether keeping mum and hoping for Chavez to self-destruct is the most effective option for Washington, remains to be seen. The message that Latin America is getting from Washington on democracy is confusing and hardly guided by principles. This should not come as a surprise. Yet, given the sketchy role that the U.S. has played in Latin America’s democratic development, a clearer statement of principles would have been a very welcome change. Preserving democracy is, after all, protecting the crown jewel of Latin America’s evolution in the past generation and, ultimately, the key to the Hemisphere’s long term stability.

And then there is Cuba. In terms of policies towards Latin America, the fact that Washington hardly produced any progress at all towards ending its outdated conflict with Cuba sticks out, arguably, as the most underwhelming result of Obama’s first year in office. Even before Obama’s election evinced remarkable changes in the political landscape in Florida, a thorough effort to revisit the embargo towards Cuba was expected. Yet, the initial impulse that led to minor adjustments in U.S. policies, such as allowing Cuban-Americans to travel to the island or lifting some of the restrictions to IT investments by U.S. companies, has vanished. Inertia is once more the name of the game. The imperviousness of the Castro brothers in the face of those gestures –which was to be expected to some extent—seems to have locked the bilateral relationship in an age old destructive game, that of eschewing bold unilateral steps towards normalization in favor of demanding tit-for-tat concessions. The result? U.S. policy towards Cuba continues to fall hostage to the very complex political machinations of a regime whose grand political agenda is about survival and little else. Here, a little boldness could have gone a long way.

Preordained or not, the current stasis in U.S.-Latin America relations is suggestive of something deeper. The fact of the matter is that, regardless of the state of the relationship, Latin America continues to change remarkably fast. The big trends that are transforming the region –the emergence of Brazil as a world power, the growth of the middle class, the increasing economic presence of China, the improved political participation of women, to name a few—will continue unabated regardless of any decisions made by Washington. The advent of modernity in Latin America would certainly benefit from Washington’s engagement with the region. Such engagement would help Latin America to overcome some grim threats to its progress –organized crime comes to mind— as well as to realize potentially enormous economic rewards. That much is true, but neither the political nor the economic trends in the region depend on what happens in Washington anymore. That time is well past. Nonetheless, it is in the interest of Washington, as well as of those of us that care about democracy and freedom in Latin America, that those trends are shaped with the input of the United States. Unfortunately, there is little evidence so far that the Obama administration has the drive or the opportunity to engage its southern neighbors who are so crucial to the future of the United States.