Foreign policy is really hard; that's the thing to keep in mind when reading this report card for United States foreign policy in 2013. Most countries have more foreign policy disappointments than successes (maybe the one big exception this year was Russia) and the United States, which has the most assertive foreign policy in the world, was certainly no exception.
With that in mind, it was a pretty mixed year for U.S. foreign policy. What follows is a highly subjective attempt to grade the Obama administration's efforts at accomplishing what appear to have been its 10 highest foreign policy priorities of 2013. I'm grading based on the degree to which the administration did or did not accomplish its own goals, rather than on the merits of those goals themselves or the general benevolence of U.S. foreign policy itself.
Based on these subjective grades, the U.S. foreign policy grade point average comes out to 2.0 exactly – a solid C, which sounds about right.
The United States has mostly succeeded at disengaging from the war and heading toward the 2014 troop drawdown; it hasn't exactly patched things up with Pakistan, but relations are not as terrible as they've been in previous years. No one thinks the drone-dominated counter-terrorism efforts are anywhere near perfect, but they've settled in as status quo. Still, it's all a tacit admission that the United States didn't really achieve any of Obama's main goals in Afghanistan. The administration was hoping to at least pressure the Taliban into accepting a peace deal and that now looks pretty unlikely.
The U.S. balancing act always looked difficult to the point of near-impossibility: hem in China's rise by making friends with its neighbors, but without giving Beijing an excuse to push back; get China to relax the currency restrictions that hurt American exports; foster China's economic growth but keep it in check militarily; keep China's territorial disputes from spiraling out of control, but still exploit them to assert the United States as a keeper of East Asian stability; push back on Chinese cyber espionage, which is spiraling out of control and, most difficult of all; maintain friendly relations with Beijing. Even with the U.S. successes in reining in China, June's summit between Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping in California seemed to go well.
This might be the Obama administration's only foreign policy A grade, but it's a really important one. As a senior U.S. diplomat once told The New York Times's David Sanger, "If we get China wrong, in thirty years that's the only thing anyone will remember."
There's no getting around it: the United States flunked on Egypt by every conceivable metric. Here are the three things it wanted to do this year: Prevent the Egyptian military from staging a coup, maintain a positive relationship with the military, and try to keep Egypt on some sort of post-revolutionary path toward liberal democracy. It failed spectacularly on the first and third of those goals and has jeopardized the second.
The administration's core problem seems to be that it's not sure how to balance those three goals. It did try to stop the July 2 military coup against the country's first-ever democratically elected (if deeply problematic) president. But the administration was only willing to quietly, privately urge against the coup; after the fact, it hedged, refusing to condemn it or even call it a coup. The new Egyptian government may have taken this as tacit approval for its brutal crackdown on pro-Muslim Brotherhood protesters, which the United States also did little to stop. Then, months later, after the damage had been done, the administration announced cuts in U.S. aid to Egypt that were just big enough to set back the relationship, but too small to effect significant change. Egypt today is backsliding far away from any democratic gain, the United States is more widely and openly loathed than at any time in recent memory, and the high-level relationship is remarkably weak.
The temporary deal with Iran over its nuclear program is certainly the biggest headline success of U.S. foreign policy this year. As well it should be! The administration has been working toward this point pretty much since Obama came into office. Still, the deal is just temporary, Congress is working to scuttle it by passing new sanctions, Iranian leaders could renege (if they haven't already), etc. If the deal falls through, it could actually make things worse by weakening the U.S.-organized effort to isolate Iran over its nuclear program. That's why this isn't an A grade. But it's still pretty remarkable.
Security cooperation has improved, and so have direct diplomatic relations after a few very rocky years of tension between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Obama administration couldn't keep Israel from bucking the Iran talks, but Netanyahu has since backed off his direst warnings of doom and disaster. That's all pretty good.
Not as good: The Israel-Turkey reconciliation that Obama worked so hard for has fallen apart, Israel is still far from on board for the Iran deal and, perhaps most importantly, the Israel-Palestine peace process is not looking so good. BuzzFeed's Sheera Frankel put it perfectly with her headline Tuesday morning, on the latest round of talks, "John Kerry Heads For Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks And No One But Him Is Excited."
North Korea: B+
War did not break out this March when North Korea pledged all sorts of annihilation. The episode ended with South Korea and Japan still deeply reliant on the United States to maintain security in East Asia. Even better, there were hints that China might finally be losing its patience with Pyongyang's provocations (although that's been a recurring theme in North Korea's only real alliance).
Still, North Korea's nuclear weapons program took some big steps this year: another warhead detonation, possibly their first uranium bomb, which would be scary; the country also launched a satellite into space, a thinly veiled development in its missile program. North Korea still poses the very real threat of accidental nuclear war, not to mention its horrible treatment of its own 25 million citizens. The United States isn't really trying to change that; it set modest, B-level goals of keeping North Korea contained, and it mostly hit them.
Pivot to Asia: B-
This is closely tied to the administration's China goals but sets broader goals of entrenching the United States as a Pacific power while also shifting away from the costly emphasis on the Middle East. The United States did a nice job in China, and most Asian countries remain pretty well aligned with the United States. Still, there have been some own-goals, like Obama skipping a crucial trip to Asia because of the government shutdown.
The United States's relationship with most Asian states is good, but it's failed to control East Asian territorial disputes and its most important ally, Japan, continues to offend its neighbors and create problems for U.S. grand strategy. The relationship with India hit a low point in the dispute over a strip-searched Indian diplomat. And the U.S. focus is clearly still on the Mideast, not Asia. There's a reason that "the pivot" has become more of a punchline than a catchphrase in D.C. foreign policy circles.
The U.S.-Russia relationship had a horrible year from beginning to end: It started with Russian President Vladimir Putin's ban on allowing American families to adopt Russian children, hit a low point with Russia sheltering former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, and is set to fall lower still with the Winter Olympics in Sochi, which Obama is skipping in implicit protest of Russia's anti-gay laws.
Yes, Obama's "reset" in the U.S.-Russia relationship pretty much died in 2013, hence the D. The only reason it's not an F is because the two countries did strike a mutually beneficial deal to remove Syria's chemical weapons and because they kept the Snowden and Syria crises from damaging the relationship even further.
Snowden blowback: D---
The damage from Snowden's revelations about NSA snooping was widespread, causing real damage for U.S. diplomacy around the world but especially in Europe and Latin America, both regions that have always bristled under U.S. dominance, although for different reasons. The United States's relationships with Brazil and Germany in particular were never perfect but took substantial hits. The administration's diplomatic handling of the crisis was not always astute, shifting between "it's not as bad as it looks," "everybody does it," and "we're sorry." Several months of international headlines seemed to confirm many of the world's worst suspicions about the United States and its role as world power.
Two moments seemed to drive home just how bad this was for U.S. foreign policy: first, when it came out that the United States may have tapped German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cellphone, something the administration utterly failed to keep from damaging U.S. diplomacy in Europe and; second, when the United States reportedly arranged for Bolivian President Evo Morales's plane to be grounded and searched for Snowden, a very significant breach that seemed guaranteed to infuriate Latin American heads of state while gaining the United States exactly nothing.
So why not a failing grade? Believe it or not, this could have been worse. The outrage was deep in many parts of the world, but not as much in others. Indian leaders actually defended the NSA programs. In China, though many people, especially Hong Kongers, expressed solidarity with Snowden, the incident actually had very little impact on U.S.-China relations. That's especially significant since Snowden tried to find shelter in Hong Kong; that he couldn't may have been a sort of gift from Beijing.
Yes, the United States succeeded in striking an important deal for removing Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons, which will help to protect the norm against their use and will restrict or maybe even end Assad's ability to use them. That's an important accomplishment.
But, outside of the chemical weapons deal, U.S. policy on Syria has seen failures on nearly every front. Obama's big, stated goals are (1) to bring about a negotiated political solution between the rebels and the Assad regime; (2) to curb extremism's rise in Syria; (3) to curb Syria's many humanitarian crises. These have all moved severely in the opposite direction over the last year; you can't lay that entirely at Obama's feet, of course, but U.S. policies have not helped and have at times exacerbated the problems. The administration long promised support to "moderate" rebels that trickled in late, leading many of those rebels to align with or lose out to better-armed, better-funded extremists, which are rising in influence. Neither the Assad regime nor the rebels show any real inclination to work toward a peace deal and the United States has failed to coerce or compel them otherwise. The United States did pledge more support for Syrian refugees, but U.S. support is not even close to keeping pace with the worsening humanitarian crises. The administration appears pained by Syria's crisis but has been, shall we say, wishy-washy about committing to a single strategy, undermining its own modest efforts.