7 Nov 2012

Barack Obama’s foreign policy ‘to do’ list

When the victory celebrations are over, the new US president will face a growing pile of issues to tackle in his foreign policy in-tray. Channel 4 News looks at those likely to be top of the list.

Chinese and US flags (Getty)


One of President Obama‘s most significant foreign policy moves during his first term involved a much-publicised “tilt” towards Asia and of course China is most probably at the top of his second term list, in red and underlined several times.

Many analysts think the policy shift was a clear indication of the growing importance of China. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has said the US is concerned about China’s military build-up, suggesting that the US must not be seen to be running scared of its challenger.

Despite social problems that could disrupt or delay it becoming a superpower, China’s rise is a potential threat to US global pre-eminence. As other states see a potential reshuffling of the global order, more will gear their policies towards a Sino rather than American agenda, to the discomfort of other western powers.

The US and China are economically interdependent, but many Americans see China as an economic threat. President Obama will have to balance popular anti-China sentiment with the need to develop China as a market.

Iran and Israel

President Obama’s indiscreet remarks about the Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the 2011 Cannes G20 summit likely worsened an already sour personal relationship. Netanyahu backed his old friend Mitt Romney for the US presidency.

The Israeli PM is tipped to win domestic elections in January, meaning he and Obama may have to work a little harder at being friends. At the beginning of his first term, President Obama made an overture to the Iranians, hoping that dialogue and the promise of improved relations would persuade the Iranian leadership to forgo its nuclear programme. It didn’t work, and Israel has been needling the US administration to act tough.

A unilateral Israeli attack on Iran appeared to be under serious consideration for a time, but economic sanctions against the west’s favourite bogeyman are having a major impact on the Iranian economy. Obama is caught between two bad options – he does not want to let Iran continue to develop its nuclear programme, but nor does he want to attack or let Israel do so.

But economic sanctions against the west’s favourite bogeyman appear to be having some impact and although the Iran threat has abated somewhat, there is no telling for how long.

Post-Arab Spring Middle East

The Middle East uprisings in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Syria have shaken up relations between this most volatile of regions and the US. The popular removal of long-entrenched leaders, some of whom (Hosni Mubarak) could be depended on by the western allies for support means that as the new regimes settle and their characters become clearer, the US may face a much tougher audience for its foreign policy.

Apparently due to the US presidential election campaign, Mr Obama was unable to meet with the new Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi when Mr Mursi made his maiden visit to the United States, instead leaving that job to his outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (whose replacement is another pressing issue Mr Obama must attend to).

But Mr Mursi (who has serious issues of his own in the wake of his country’s revolution and dire economic and social problems) is potentially in a difficult situation with his Jewish neighbours over ongoing violence and insecurity in the Sinai peninsula, a critical buffer zone between the Arab and Israeli worlds.

The Egypt-Israel peace agreement of 1979 is under threat. The deterioration in security following Mubarak’s downfall has increased violence in the region to the extent that a reported four new jihadist groups have formed there.

Israel has refused to allow a permanent larger Egyptian military presence in the area due to the risk of conflict, meanwhile jihadist groups and disaffected Bedouin residents are exploiting the security vacuum to launch attacks in Gaza and on border personnel and infrastructure targets such as gas pipelines.

Add to this the continuing bloodshed in Syria, which the US has so far done relatively little to address, and it looks like the Middle East could easily also occupy Mr Obama’s attention for the remainder of his time in the White House. Like all US presidents, he also has to think about the intractable Israeli/Palestinian conflict on which there was no progress during his first term.

Women protest in Pakistan over the US drones policy (Getty)

Pakistan and drones

One of the triumphs for the Obama foreign policy was the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. But the revelation that the al Qaeda leader may have been hiding out in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbotabad for some time confirmed in cynical western minds that Pakistan may not be a US ally in the “war on terror”.

Equally, President Obama’s stepping up of the Bush administration’s drone policy against Islamist militants in the north-west of Pakistan has become an increasingly contentious issue, both in Pakistan and among human rights groups in the west.

Read more: ‘Terror and stress’ in the shadow of the drones

According to figures collated by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, of the 350 recorded drone strikes in Pakistan, 298 have been on Obama’s watch.

Discontent is on the rise against drone strikes, largely thanks to the political campaigning of Imran Khan though whether the US will significantly decrease its commitment to this new type of warfare remains to be seen.

Largely, the Obama foreign policy in some ways contrasts with his predecessor – the US has not entered significantly into full-scale conflict over the last four years, though equally, Mr Obama has not engaged as fully as he might have been expected to do, especially in the Middle East.

Without the pressure of having to court interest groups to secure his re-election, Mr Obama may take the opportunity to more fully engage his foreign policy.

However, given the pressing economic and fiscal issues he faces domestically he may choose to devote most of his energies there.