Susan Rice. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle, File)
Last year, President Obama famously told Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev that he’d have more flexibility on foreign policy after the 2012 election, since he wouldn’t have to face re-election. So, several months in, with his new foreign policy team in place, led by Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, it’s fair to ask how Obama is doing.
The record so far is mixed, though there are some hopeful signs. Most encouraging, in a major speech delivered at the National Defense University (NDU) on May 23, the president called for an end to the long-running “war on terror.” He said Al Qaeda was all but defeated, adding that henceforth terrorism could be dealt with by law enforcement and intelligence rather than the military. Obama reiterated his call to shut down Guantánamo, demanded that the outdated Authorization to Use Military Force be rewritten on a smaller scale, and pledged to rein in drone warfare by restricting targets and taking greater care to avoid civilian casualties.
Whether Obama’s words translate into significant policy changes remains to be seen. More broadly, he has a lot of catching up to do in international affairs. Facing an urgent set of challenges—civil war in Syria, a belligerent North Korea, stalled nuclear talks with Iran, a frozen Israeli-Palestinian peace process, flare-ups across Africa, tense relations with China and Russia, and a stubborn economic crisis in Europe, just for starters—Obama will have to shake off his desire to focus primarily on problems at home. During his first term, he often appeared willing to let global affairs drift as he pursued his domestic agenda, only to be seized by nasty foreign surprises.
The NDU speech began to right a balance that was lost in Obama’s February State of the Union address, which was overwhelmingly devoted to domestic issues. Even in that speech, however, Obama said Americans “believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war,” and he pledged to “reduce…wartime spending.” Indeed, since taking office, the president’s instinct has been anti-interventionist, the most recent exhibit being his reluctance to involve the United States directly in Syria’s civil war. Especially when measured against George W. Bush’s shoot-first, make-diplomacy-later attitude, that’s a good thing. “Obama’s great strength in terms of foreign policy is that he’s not impulsive, and he realizes that there are very few things happening in the world that can truly harm the United States,” says Stephen Walt, international affairs specialist at Harvard and co-author of The Israel Lobby.
But if that is Obama’s strength, it hides an underlying weakness. The United States certainly doesn’t need to deploy its armed forces every time trouble erupts, much less engage in pre-emptive, unilateral wars. But it does need a well-conceived approach to diplomacy, in which each piece of the world puzzle fits into a mosaic that makes sense. Building better relations with Russia and China, for instance, is indispensable for dealing with Syria, Iran and North Korea. And it’s impossible to make progress on those or other difficult problems without a diplomatic strategy that starts at the top and involves all the players. Thus far, Obama and his new team are just beginning to show that they understand how to use diplomatic clout in concert with other powers.