MADRID – Humbled by the Republicans’ landslide mid-term election victory, US President Barack Obama will now need to negotiate every minor detail of his domestic agenda with a confrontational Congress – at least until the next elections in 2012. Congress can obstruct Obama’s foreign policy as well, but this remains a domain where any US president “enjoys almost royal prerogatives,” to use Alexis de Tocqueville’s somewhat inflated description.
These prerogatives, however, have so far allowed Obama only to describe the world that he wants, not to bring it about. George W. Bush committed the cardinal sin of all fallen empires – that of overreach. The Obama alternative was supposed to be collective global security sustained by multilateral structures. Rather than containing rising powers such as China and India, they would be drawn into a civilized world order, one based on global governance and “smart diplomacy.”
Yet, instead of building such an order, Obama’s presidency has so far been a mighty struggle to stem the decline in American power. He has fallen desperately short in making real progress towards the Promised Land, in which America lives in peace with the Muslim world, thanks to an Israeli-Palestinian settlement; brings about a nuclear-free planet (a noble, yet entirely delusional pledge); gets Russia’s support in addressing other global problems; contains China’s quest to translate its growing economic power into major strategic gains; ends its two diversionary wars in Muslim countries; and leads a solid international alliance to cut short Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Foreign policy has almost invariably been the refuge of US presidents hit by mid-term defeats. But foreign policy cannot be detached from its domestic foundations altogether. Can a president shown to be hesitant in the Middle East and Afghanistan even before his mid-term setback muster the authority needed to advance his global vision after such a domestic debacle?