Obama's foreign policy turnaround proving ever elusive

From China to Saudi Arabia, the U.S. president has learned that crafting and maintaining foreign relationships, regardless of who is in the White House, can be challenging when American interests inevitably clash with those of other states.

Even long-time allies are wondering what America is up to

President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrive for a news conference at the chancellery in Berlin in June, before the Edward Snowden leaks suggested that the NSA has been monitoring her communications. (Michael Sohn/The Associated Press)

When U.S. President Barack Obama took over the White House in 2008, he set out to transform U.S. foreign policy into one that would forge better relationships with traditional adversaries and restore America's image, which had taken a severe hit during the George W. Bush years.

But the president has learned that crafting such relationships, regardless of who is in the White House, can be challenging when American interests inevitably clash with those of other states.

"I think he's grown up. He's kind of taken a cold shower," says Charles Kupchan, a professor of international affairs at the Walsh school of foreign service and government at Georgetown University in Washington. 

"I would say that there was a certain geopolitical naivety at the beginning," Kupchan told CBC News. "There was a sense that the U.S. could go out and forge relationships based upon mutual interests and mutual respect, and that there wasn't an intrinsic competitive dynamic to international politics."

This competitive dynamic has been on full display over the past few months as Obama has been beset by a number of foreign policy headaches.

In just the past few days, for example, tensions have increased between the U.S and China over Beijing’s declaration of an air defence zone over the East China Sea.

Meanwhile, despite all the initial hype of pushing the so-called reset button with Russia, relations between Washington and the Kremlin remain cool over Syria as well as Moscow’s granting of asylum to former NSA employee and document leaker Edward Snowden. 

Aaron David Miller, a foreign policy expert and scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, said that certain geopolitical realities have hindered Obama's efforts.

"Even though at the beginning he hoped to be a transformative president, both domestically and abroad, he has failed to deliver on each," Miller said in a recent interview.

But it’s not just America's former Cold War adversaries that have been creating problems, U.S. allies also seemed perturbed with the administration.

"Pick a region of the globe and in all likelihood America's allies located there have a valid case for being cheesed off at Washington," Daniel Drezner, professor of international politics at Tufts University, near Boston, wrote recently in the journal Foreign Policy.

A case in point: the tentative deal reached with Iran regarding its nuclear energy program could lead to a signature foreign policy achievement for the president, but it has certainly caused a rift with two stalwart allies in the Middle East, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Irritating allies

It's no secret that Obama has had a difficult relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been outspoken in his opposition to any kind of rapprochement with Iran.

But some Saudi officials have also been uncharacteristically vocal in criticizing the White House over its overtures to Iran, as well as its hesitancy to involve itself directly in the Syrian conflict.

Georgetown professor Charles Kupchan: 'Obama's in an awkward space right now.' (Council on Foreign Relations)
Meanwhile, in Egypt, U.S. cuts to military and foreign aid following the ouster of former president Mohammed Morsi has soured relations to the point that Egypt’s foreign minister last month said that U.S-Egyptian relations were in "turmoil."

And then there’s Europe where American drone strikes and other anti-terror practices have festered into human rights issues, angering many Europeans and their governments, Kupchan said.

What's more, he adds, the revelations of National Security Agency spying on German Chancellor Angela Merkel has "caused an enormous amount of discomfort in Europe" and is “the most significant transatlantic breach since the Iraq war."

"All that adds up to putting Obama in an awkward space right now with respect to his relations with key partners," Kupchan said.

For his part, Drezner wrote that Obama has done as poor a job as former president George W. Bush when it comes to  "gardening" relationships, that is, regularly consulting with U.S allies so they will at least feel they are in the loop if issues come up between them.

"Irritating allies is an occupational hazard of being a superpower," Drezner wrote. "And there are times when policy shifts or espionage is warranted. The point of gardening is to make sure that these irritations don't become full-grown thorns."

The China pivot

Critics have also complained that Obama has failed to invest in the administration’s so-called pivot to Asia strategy, questioning the recent decision to cancel a visit to a number of Southeast Asian countries, including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting in October. (Obama decided to stay in Washington to deal with the debt ceiling crisis).

It "was a blow to America's image in Asia, where symbolism is everything," Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, told the Wall Street Journal.

"It projects the image that America is politically dysfunctional and fiscally irresponsible, and not as committed to Asia as the Obama administration would have us believe," he said.

Still, Miller says that while Obama may have fuelled unrealistic expectations when it came to foreign policy, many of the setbacks can not be laid at his feet, and that there's only so much even a U.S. president can do.

"I see Obama functioning in a cruel and unforgiving world," he said. "I think the circumstances for this president, abroad, have been very difficult."

Miller argues that on some of the administration's core interests   protecting the homeland, extracting the U.S. from two wars, testing the proposition of negotiating with rather than confronting the Iranians  Obama is "actually doing pretty well."

Some close foreign policy watchers have also suggested that Obama has made some inroads with Russia, specifically in co-operating against terrorism. And before the recent flare up with China, progress was being made, most importantly in getting Beijing to take a tougher stance with North Korea.

"I think that when the dust settles, he will be seen as a president that did succeed in repairing relations with many countries," Kupchan said. "I think we are in a valley right now and I don’t expect this to be a new normal. Expect it to kind of rebound.”


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