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President Barack Obama points to someone in the crowd as he arrives to speak about immigration at Del Sol High School, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013, in Las Vegas.

Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press

President Obama’s second-term foreign policy

  • Article by: JOHN RASH
  • Star Tribune
  • February 1, 2013 - 8:17 PM

The U.S. election overshadowed shifts in leadership in China, Japan, Russia, Mexico and France, among other nations. Just as our State Department will analyze new foreign policy priorities in those countries, other nations will try to decipher adjustments in President Obama's second-term policies.

"Initiatives of his first term will have time to settle in for the next four years," said Tom Hanson, a former Foreign Service officer who is now a diplomat-in-residence at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

Hanson, who gave his annual "U.S. Foreign Policy Update" Tuesday to a packed house at a Minnesota International Center event at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, spanned the globe of international issues facing an America that's increasingly inwardly focused.

Short-term decisions loom regarding Syria, Iran and Mali, Hanson said. Long-term, he reviewed the "seven tectonic shifts" identified in the 2012 National Intelligence Estimate.

But most notably he honed in on the "heightened tension between the two traditions in foreign policy that go way back in our history -- one realist and the other idealist."

Embodied by presidents as far back as John Quincy Adams (realist) and Woodrow Wilson (idealist), these traditions have crossed eras, parties and even families. George H.W. Bush was "the ultimate realist" while George W. Bush "brought us to the high-water mark of the idealist tradition in transformational diplomacy -- the idea that we reserve the right to intervene anywhere in the world in the name of human freedom."

"These tensions are occurring against the backdrop of our severe deficit, our fiscal crisis and, yes, perhaps, our governance crisis," Hanson added.

Governance of foreign affairs could have been especially puzzling to global observers this week, when two seasoned senators picked to implement Obama's policies faced very different treatment during confirmation hearings. Savvy diplomats probably focused on the president, however. Hanson said they are used to the "back-and-forthing" between realist and idealist strains.

As for Obama, Hanson said his second-term strategy is a shift from counterinsurgency and the Middle East toward Asia "to begin actively hedging against the realist balance-of-power threat to us today and that is the rise of China -- and to do this within the overall context of the reduction in U.S. defense spending."

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John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.

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