Despite this week’s elections, President Obama has the time and scope to do big things over the next two years. But they will have to be in the world beyond Washington. Next week’s trip to Asia would be a good place to start. In fact, it’s odd that Obama has not already devoted more time, energy and attention to foreign policy. It has been clear for a while that there is little prospect of working with the Republican Party on major domestic initiatives. This is hardly unprecedented. Administrations often devote their last few years in office to international affairs, an arena where they have latitude for unilateral action.
If Obama wants significant accomplishments in foreign policy in his last years in office, he will first need the discipline with which he began his presidency. The incremental, escalating interventionism in Syria and Iraq — were it to continue — would absorb the White House’s attention, the public’s interest and the country’s military resources. It also would not succeed, if by success we mean the triumph of pro-democratic forces in the Syrian civil war.
Obama’s biggest foreign policy initiative is powerful, intelligent and incomplete: the pivot to Asia. The greatest threat to global peace and prosperity over the next decades comes not from a band of assassins in Syria but from the rise of China and the manner in which that will reshape the geopolitics of Asia and the world. If Washington can provide balance and reassurance in Asia, it will help ensure that the continent does not become the flashpoint for a new Cold War.
But so far the pivot remains more rhetoric than reality. Although the United States has promised a larger military presence in the Philippines, Singapore and Australia, there is little evidence of any of this on the ground. Despite receiving assurances that the United States would be diplomatically active and energetic, Asian diplomats still complain that China outmans and outperforms the United States at regional summits. Obama has postponed two trips to Asia in the past four years.
The most ambitious element of the Asia pivot is the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The idea is simple: to lower trade barriers and other impediments to commerce among 12 large Pacific economies that compose 40 percent of global GDP. This would provide a boost to global growth; more importantly, it would shore up the principles and practice of open markets, and encourage open economies at a time when state capitalism is gaining strength and nationalist barriers are creeping up everywhere.
The good news is that the Republican victory might make the TPP more likely. Trade is one of the few issues on which the GOP agrees with the president. Obama’s problems are largely with his own party, which has adopted a defeatist and protectionist outlook, abandoning the tradition of Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy for that of Pat Buchanan. So far, Obama has been reluctant to take on the challenge, merely signaling support for the TPP rather than throwing himself into the struggle.
Obama has one other major foreign policy initiative: nuclear negotiations with Iran. Again, the basic strategy has been smart, but it has not received sufficient presidential attention and focus. It remains unclear whether Iran is ready to make peace with the United States and the West. But if it is, Obama should present Washington and the world with the deal, even though almost any agreement will surely be denounced as treason by Republicans and attacked by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The more complex diplomatic challenge will be to find a way to reconcile the deal with the United States’ long-standing alliance with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. But a senior Saudi royal has indicated to me his country understands that, at some point, there will have to be a thaw in relations with Iran. The true game-changer in the Middle East would be a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement, brokered by Washington. That would alter the landscape of the Middle East, reduce tensions and build a common focus against jihadi terror.
The world looks messy, and the administration is on the defensive. But recall what the world looked like when Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger were conducting foreign policy. The United States was losing a war in Asia in which it had deployed a half-million troops. The Soviet Union was on the march. Domestic opposition and troubles were mounting. Nixon and Kissinger had to withdraw troops and accept an onerous peace deal, but, as former U.S. trade representative Robert Zoellick has pointed out, they combined this retreat with bold, positive moves — arms control with the Soviet Union, the opening to China, shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East. The result was that, by 1973, people were dazzled by the energy and ingenuity of U.S. foreign policy. Historian John Gaddis has described this as one of the most successful reversals of fortune for U.S. foreign policy in modern history.
If he wants that kind of legacy, it’s time for Obama to become a foreign policy president.
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