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Four more years: what's on Obama's foreign agenda?

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2012-11-08

Foreign policy was eclipsed by voter concerns over the US economy on the 2012 campaign trail, but US President Barack Obama's re-election has raised the question of what will be America's overseas focus in a second term.

A remote village in western Kenya rejoiced when US President Barack Obama’s re-election was announced, schoolchildren in Indonesia screamed with delight, TV anchors across the world relayed the news in a babble of languages, and Twitter broke all records with 31 million election-related tweets bouncing between continents on Election Night – or morning, in most places.

The idea of a US president as “the leader of the free world” may elicit scoffs in some corners of the globe. But many non-US citizens have sighed over their inability to have a say in a position that could well have a direct impact on their daily lives.

Yet, on the long, cantankerous 2012 US presidential campaign trail, remarkably little was said about foreign policy. The last of the three presidential debates was supposed to be focused on foreign affairs. But it was dominated by domestic economic issues, leading Richard Hass, president of the Washington DC-based Council on Foreign Relations to conclude that it “was not so much about foreign policy and not so much a debate”.

The morning after the election though, US presidents face more than 190 bilateral relations with governments that have impatiently waited out the campaign circus in order to get down to business.

History has shown that while foreign policy is frequently overlooked in the lead-up to the polls, newly-elected US presidents are often blindsided by dramatic developments that put international affairs on top of their agendas.

Avowedly non-internationalist presidential candidate George W. Bush was hit by the 9/11 attacks and subsequent “war on terror”. In Obama’s case, barely two years after his famous “New Beginnings” speech in Cairo, when Cairo did cry out for a new beginning in 2011, the US president was caught unprepared.

In his second term in office, on the foreign policy front, Obama is not insured from seismic, unanticipated occurrences, says Stephen Walt, professor of international relations at the Harvard Kennedy School. “Unexpected events surprise almost anyone, no matter how experienced they are,” explained Walt in a phone interview with FRANCE 24. “With experience, they may be better at handling it, but events can catch even seasoned presidents by surprise.”

China's new leader and a 'pivot to Asia'

Within the realm of the expected, many US foreign policy analysts see China dominating Obama’s foreign policy agenda.

“I think China is probably the issue where the president is going to be the most judged in terms of his foreign policy legacy,” said Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer, Paris director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Obama’s re-election came just two days before China is set to open its 18th Communist Party Congress, which will end with Xi Jinping appointed as the new party leader.

“I think we will see the Obama administration devote considerable time and attention on getting to know him, and trying to manage relations with China, and to manage relations with various partners in the region - such as Japan, Korea, India and other Southeast Asian nations – which clearly concerns China,” explained Walt.

Mideast peace process sidelined by Iran

Obama may well begin his second term with a promise to “look east” but the developments in the Middle East are likely to occupy a considerable part of his time.

As the Syrian crisis continues to spiral, there are growing hopes that Obama will adopt a more robust or engaged policy now that he’s secured his next term in office.

Walt believes we may see “a more vigorous engagement” on Syria in terms of providing weapons to the opposition while de Hoop Scheffer predicts a more “audacious position”, involving a readiness to “recognise a coherent Syrian opposition”.

But Walt does not foresee any “substantial [US] military presence or air strikes unless there’s a danger of a massive loss of lives”.

On the moribund Mideast peace process, most analysts believe it’s likely to stay that way.

“I’m not so sure this is a priority for Barack Obama right now,” said de Hoop Scheffer. “I also think that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has in a certain way succeeded in sidelining the Israeli-Palestinian issue and put the Iran issue on the forefront of the international agenda.”

Walt mirrors this opinion, noting that Obama’s re-election is unlikely to change Netanyahu’s policy of “consolidating Israeli control of the West Bank.”

The two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians, Walt argues, may be the best possible outcome of a longstanding crisis, but it’s realistically not going to happen.

“The Israeli right has no interest in it, the Palestinians are too weak and divided to put meaningful pressure on them, and the United States is too compromised by the Israel lobby to be an effective mediator,” wrote Walt in a Foreign Policy piece ahead of the election.

While Walt maintains that Washington has to “think seriously” about a possible alternative to the two-state solution, he’s not optimistic about the prospects of a Mideast re-think in US foreign policy.

A crisis-hit US overextended on the international arena

Nor does he forecast a major shift in America’s Afghanistan policy, with US combat troops scheduled for a withdrawal by the end of 2014.

Obama’s commitment to the Afghan withdrawal is consistent with his stated belief, before the start of his first term in office, that a financial crisis-hit US is overextended on the international arena.

In the past, some US presidents such as Bill Clinton have looked to foreign policy to determine their legacy toward the end of their second term.

But Walt believes the new president would prefer to establish his legacy on the domestic rather than the international front.

“He has said several times that the US needs to concentrate more on nation-building at home. His goal is a healthy economy that's more equitable and provides more opportunities for everyone," said Walt.

With months to go before his January 2013 inauguration, Obama's post-election discourse appears to mirror his campaign rhetoric. But then US presidents have been known to promise to address the woes at home rather than playing saviour to the rest of the world. Rarely have they succeeded – as the billions of people who followed the November 6 election results well know.

Date created : 2012-11-07

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