In an interview with France24, Justin Vaisse looks forward to potential foreign policy developments in President Barack Obama’s second term.
France24: Presidents in their second mandates tend to try to make some changes in their foreign policies, trying to burnish their legacy maybe. Do you think this will be the case with Barack Obama?
Justin Vaïsse: Yes and at least for two reasons. The first one is that obviously he has freer hands without the prospective of reelection and the end of his mandate and without the heavy burden of the campaign and fundraising and all that goes with it and of course the political constraint also he has freer hands. And the second reason is foreign policy offers presidents especially in their second mandate an opportunity to escape from the intricacies and the tensions and the constant bargaining with Congress in Washington because foreign policy is an area where the president has significantly more power vis-à-vis internal constraints and domestic policy and that’s why generally presidents do pretty well in foreign policy during the second mandate, think Ronald Reagan and all the initiatives he took with Mikhail Gorbachev in the 80s, think Bill Clinton and others, they are just more successful and so I expect Obama to launch a series of initiatives to as you say try to burnish his legacy.
France24: First of all, there might be some personnel changes, we’ve seen already the CIA director leave because of extramarital affairs, there’s talk of Hilary Clinton leaving as secretary of state, Mr. Panetta secretary of defense. First of all he will have to reorganize his national security slash foreign policy team.
Justin Vaïsse: Yes, however it’s part of the Washington jockeying and horseracing, who will go where and it’s interesting and I would say it’s relevant to some extent to know who will be the next secretary of state for example. However remember that the lesson of the first mandate is that the first advisor to Barack Obama is Barack Obama himself. He’s been the decider-in-chief; he’s been the strategic mind thinking in the White House, so the decisions were really concentrated in the White House like under Nixon or Carter for example. However the difference is that Barack Obama did not have Kissinger or Muskie to help him. He was his own man and he was making the decisions both at a general level like Bush did, but also at a more precise and concrete level. He was really in charge and so you want to sort of predict what the second mandate would look like, it’s less useful to know who will be secretary of state than to try to understand how Barack Obama works, how he sees the world, and what he wants to accomplish.
France24: What do you see him trying to accomplish in his second mandate, you mentioned initiatives, what do you think is in his mind right now?
Justin Vaïsse: Well you know I think his first priority would be most probably to try to finish what he calls the pivot. Not only the pivot to Asia, but more generally trying to get away from the wars, the land wars in Asia so Iraq is finished, he’s drawing down in Afghanistan, so I think he wants to see that finished for good in order to redistribute assets vis-à-vis the emerging world, towards the emerging world, towards Asia in particular. I think that’s the grand idea of his mandate. Remember that Obama is first and foremost a pragmatist, he’s as (Ryan Liesma?) wrote a consequentialist. So he decides based on the merits of the case not out of a set of fixed principles or an ideology. He’s the ultimate pragmatist, he has a grand idea which is that you need to reconfigure US leadership after Bush in order to adapt it to the new world, a world that is made of India, Brazil, China, and hence the idea of the pivot and the idea of redistributing assets from Middle East land wars to Asia. And that I think he will place an emphasis on and try to see through in his second mandate.
Sentiment inside the Beltway has turned sharply against China. There are many issues where the two parties sound more or less the same. Trump and others in the administration seem heavily invested in a ‘get very tough with China’ stance. It’s possible that some Democrats might argue that a decoupling strategy borders on lunacy. But if Trump believes this will play well with his core constituencies as his reelection campaign moves into high gear, he will probably decide to stick with it, if the costs and the collateral damage seem manageable. But that’s a very big if, especially if the downsides of a protracted trade war for both American consumers and for American firms become increasingly apparent.