President Obama approaches his second term with an eye to his legacy in foreign policy. His re-election creates the opportunity for new initiatives and for first-term policies to take root. Although the fiscal cliff dominates postelection debate, decision points loom on Iran, Syria and a host of other issues. Here is a brief synopsis of foreign-policy challenges facing the president.
1. CHINA AND THE 'PIVOT'
A strategic shift to Asia has emerged as the centerpiece of Obama's foreign policy. His administration worries that China's rise, combined with our recent preoccupation with Afghanistan and Iraq, threatens to erode the U.S. position in dynamic Asia. It has responded by reasserting our interests in the region. Specific steps have included claiming a U.S. role in the resolution of territorial disputes in the South China Sea; proposing a "Trans Pacific Partnership" in trade that would effectively exclude China, and unveiling a new U.S. national-security strategy that calls for a shift of military resources to Asia.
This policy change has provoked negative reactions in Beijing and has helped bring island disputes to center stage. Obama will have to manage growing tensions between China and Japan as well as divisions among Southeast Asian countries over our new approach. There is also concern that the influence of the Chinese military may be growing, just as China enters a period of leadership transition. Obama will most likely seek to increase our engagement with China, particularly military-to-military ties, to lessen mutual mistrust even while proceeding with his strategy of hedging against China's rise.
2. THE GREATER MIDDLE EAST
It is hard to imagine pivoting away from the worsening crises in this region. Israel has declared summer 2013 the deadline for dealing with Iran's nuclear program. Meanwhile, Syria risks becoming the spark for a larger regional conflict between Sunni and Shia forces along a "Shia crescent" that stretches from Bahrain to Iraq to Lebanon. Syria is more central to Middle East politics than is Libya, and thus both presidential candidates stopped well short of calling for direct intervention. How Obama deals with growing tensions between Iran and Israel, between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran in Syria, and between Israel and the Palestinians as the effects of the Arab Spring reverberate across the region, will be key to his legacy in foreign policy.
The United States plans to exit the country at the end of 2014, leaving behind a small contingent force but with little sign of a stable political or military framework. Afghanistan remains an area of competition between India and Pakistan, and to a lesser extent Iran. Without some attempt at creating a regional framework, the United States risks leaving a vacuum. Obama's secretive policy of lethal drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere will come under greater public scrutiny in his second term.
4. OUR CLOSEST NEIGHBORS
Relations with Canada and Mexico are more important than ever. Energy ties with Canada play a key role in lessening U.S. dependence on Middle East oil. And Mexico is emerging as a prime destination for foreign investment and manufacturing. New opportunities for economic cooperation will join immigration and antidrug policy on the second-term bilateral agenda with our southern neighbor.
5. DEFENSE AND SECURITY
Obama will proceed with plans to reduce defense spending by at least $500 million over the next 10 years, in contrast to candidate Mitt Romney's call for a $2 trillion increase. Getting our fiscal house in order will be crucial not just for our economy but also for maintaining U.S. strength and credibility. Obama will seek to build upon the 2010 nuclear arms reduction agreement with Russia, although Russian President Vladimir Putin's domestic crackdown and obstructionism on Syria have strained relations. And the world economy, plagued by a structural lack of demand, will remain a source of instability. Polling during the presidential campaign showed that voters consider job outsourcing the top security issue facing the United States. Obama's challenge will be to address global economic imbalances without resorting to protectionism.
• • •
Beyond these issues, unexpected developments are likely to shape the president's second term, just as the Arab Spring affected his first. As part of his legacy, securing greater resources for our underfunded and understaffed diplomatic service could help to meet the foreign-policy challenges that lie ahead.
* * *
Thomas Hanson is a frequent speaker for the Minnesota International Center's Great Decisions program. He is a former U.S. Foreign Service officer and is currently Diplomat in Residence at the Royal D. Alworth, Jr. Institute for International Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth.