Obama's Foreign Policy: Three Stages of Hope

President Barack Obama speaks during the 67th session of the General Assembly at United Nations headquarters, Tuesday, Sept.
President Barack Obama speaks during the 67th session of the General Assembly at United Nations headquarters, Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2012. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

When President Obama first entered into office in 2009, he was riding a huge wave of hope. He was going to engage other nations rather than confront them, work closely with allies rather than rush ahead unilaterally, restore the good name of the United States across the word and win over the Arab "street."

In the following years, whatever success this strategy of engagement did yield, it did not measure up to the original expectations. Iran did not engage, North Korea continued its intransigent ways, the "reset" of the relationship with Russia did not stay reset, and the Arab street curved in many different, unexpected ways. True, the U.S. is more popular than it was before Obama first took office; true, U.S. allies carry more of the burden (especially in Libya) than they have previously. However, compared with the unrealistic expectations generated by President Obama's first election, these achievements seem rather limited. Moreover, this stage -- between 2009 and 2012 -- was dominated by criticism from the left (e.g., "too many drones," "too much leniency granted to the CIA" and so on) and the right (e.g., "too soft on Russia, China and Iran").

As it tends to go with such progressions, the stage now is set for realistic idealism. People no longer expect that speeches, however eloquent, and gestures, however finely formed, will disarm Iran, restrain North Korea or otherwise suffice as the major tools of American foreign policy. There is still room, though, for give and take, for finding shared and complementary interests, for scaling back the military and increasing diplomacy and for new forms of economic relations.

The main test for American foreign policy is still in the Middle East. Iran ought to -- and will be -- given another major chance to work out its differences with the United States in a way that ensures that it will have the capability to use nuclear plants for generating electricity and for medical research but not for making bombs. However, this offer of give and take will carry with it the implied suggestion that military action is likely to follow if reengagement fails. Israel and the Palestinians will again be encouraged to work out their differences, but with the added implication that if they fail, they may find their arms twisted. In other nations in the region, the second Obama administration will face one challenge after another and will have to find its way recognizing that regardless of its actions, the region will be not be governed by truly democratic, pro-American governments by the time President Obama leaves the White House.

The main place for renewed hope is in the Far East. Toward the end of his first term, President Obama "pivoted" to China. The reasons and the meaning of this move are far from clear. Some American students of foreign relations, and some in the Pentagon, see China as a rapidly rising global power that will challenge the U.S.A. -- as a nation that is "out to eat our lunch." They point to China's assertive conduct in the South China Sea as evidence of the expanding power and ambition of this nation and hence call for increased military spending by the United States and even preparations for a war with China. They have urged that the United States move troops and naval vessels to the region, make military alliances and conduct military exercises with China's neighbors and encourage Japan to increase its military forces. In contrast, others hold that China's core interests and ambitions are limited to its region. This school of thought maintains that China merely seeks to secure the flow of raw material and energy on which its economy depends, and that its main aim is to continue to provide for its people rather than impose its regime upon other nations, let alone take on running the world. Hence diplomacy here, at least at this stage, carries more hope than accelerated military preparations.

When historians write their chapter on the second Obama administration, many of its stories will have originated in the Middle East, with its twists and turns and unpredictable course. However, in terms of weighty consequences for the future of the world, and for the United States' role in the future world order, nothing will be as determinative as developments in the Far East. The final judgment on the hope Obama generated will be much influenced by whether he leaves to his successor a United States embroiled in a new Cold War and arms race or a United States that is part of an ever-reforming world order in which China, Japan, India, Brazil and many other nations all have a peaceful, albeit largely regional, role to play.

This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the George Washington University that closely examines the most pressing challenges facing President Obama in his second term. To read the companion article by HuffPost's Joshua Hersh, click here. To read the companion blog post by Jeremy Konyndyk of Mercy Corps, click here. To read all the other posts in the series, click here.