DENVER – It’s over. After a year-long campaign costing $2.5-6 billion (estimates vary widely), President Barack Obama has won a second four-year term, with 49 states reporting their results on election night (Florida, for the second time in four presidential elections, did not). Obama now has a chance to define the United States’ role in the international system for years to come.
Second terms can often be productive times for US foreign policy, largely because presidents cannot seek a third. George W. Bush, for example, used his second four years in office to fix mistakes made during his first (his second-term team was busy).
Presidents in their second terms often apply old-fashioned American pragmatism to tough issues, which they often cannot do during their first terms, when reelection is their first priority. Obama’s infamous open-mike remark to Russian Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev that he would have more flexibility after the election may have shocked some, but, for most foreign-policy experts, he was stating the obvious. The president’s challenge is to use his new freedom of action quickly, before the perception sets in (as it inevitably does) that he is a lame duck.
Obama’s first foreign excursion after the election will be to Laos to attend the East Asian summit, a trip that is perceived as part of his administration’s “pivot” to Asia. He will also visit Myanmar (Burma) in an effort to lend support to that struggling country’s extraordinary changes and encourage further progress.
But the real challenge for Obama is to do more to explain what the “pivot” means, because already his bold side trip to the unfinished project in Myanmar is being perceived as yet another effort to contain or, worse, encircle China. What began as a strategic shift to an area of the world replete with long-term US interests has become – even to many anxious Americans – an exercise in picking new fights with a country of 1.3 billion people undergoing painful internal transformations of its own.
US policy in Asia requires a steady hand, and, in Obama, the US has just that. But it also needs effective communication that makes clear to the American people that the relationship with China truly is too big to fail and thus requires a long-term process of thoughtful engagement. Such messages must be issued more often by the president himself, and not only by officials several bureaucratic layers below. American policy in Asia in general, and toward China in particular, has enjoyed consistent bipartisan support. When a US president has bipartisan support on any issue, he should flaunt it.
There is no question that dealing with China, which is in an anxious mood of its own, has become increasingly difficult. But the way to address China’s internal tensions and emerging nationalism, and the resulting strains in its relationships with its neighbors, is not to put the region’s countries in the position of having to choose between China and the US. The right approach is to be constant, to stress long-term commitments, and to speak in a calm and measured way, understanding that good China policy is about relationships, not transactions. No one does that better than this president.
Another aspect of the pivot involves moving away from the Middle East. But no amount of fancy footwork, whether pivoting or pirouetting, can diminish that region’s importance. The Middle East will remain a central pillar of world energy for decades to come. Whether it ultimately can export more energy than instability is the key question.
Unlike East Asia, the Middle East remains a region in turmoil, the complexity of which defies analytical consensus. Do the region’s crises stem from the lack of peace with Israel? Or is some combination of other factors – boiling frustration with the regional economic order, for example, or a US intervention that turned Sunni-led Iraq into the Arab world’s lonely, Shia-led black sheep – at its root?
The Obama administration needs to do a far better job in its second term when it comes to defining the issues and setting the scope of a reenergized US diplomatic effort in the region. In Obama’s first term, mediators were dispatched to the region within days of his inauguration. Perhaps this time, there should be a greater effort at developing coherent polices first.
I suggest starting with Syria. In the absence of international leadership in forging a political end-state, Syria’s conflict has tragically become a sectarian civil war – one that is rapidly metastasizing, with far-reaching consequences for US interests in the region and for prior US political investments in projects like Iraq. We need to put aside crowd-pleasing calls for President Bashar al-Assad’s removal (though obviously he must go) and work harder with international partners, including Russia and China – both of which should, quite frankly, rank higher than Syria in terms of their importance to US foreign policy.
Finally, the US needs reliable partners. And among the most reliable is Europe. But Europe is preoccupied with its own economic problems, which have pressed European leadership to the breaking point.
Europe will be back (the sooner the better). In the meantime, the US needs to do all that it can, including showing some uncharacteristic patience, to help Europe emerge from its crisis. It also needs to continue to engage with Europe on international projects, including negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program – an issue of fundamental significance to international security.
No president in recent decades has had a better temperament and a clearer vision for facing the world’s challenges than the one that Americans have just reelected. Obama now has an opportunity to put that talent to work in ways that he could not in his first term.