Senator Barack Obama’s election as the next president of the United States promises a new era in America’s rocky relations with the world. But the era may be slow in dawning and President-elect Obama’s promised international initiatives - ramping up war in Afghanistan, curbing global warming - may not work out quite the way America’s allies hope.
The urgent economic challenge at home will constrain and shape Obama’s initial dealings with foreign leaders. In spring 2008, pluralities of the public in 16 of 23 countries surveyed by the Pew Global Attitudes Project thought the US had a negative influence on their domestic economy. Following the Bush administration’s mishandling of the September Lehman Brothers collapse and thanks to the global economy’s downward spiral into recession, majorities around the world now undoubtedly blame America for their economic woes, for good reason.
Thus Obama must not only restore US consumer confidence, as Franklin Roosevelt tried in the 1930s, but also demonstrate economic leadership that inspires hope around the world, an unprecedented challenge. During the campaign, Obama was largely silent about how he would deal with the international aspect of the financial crisis. There are no American votes to be gained by pledging to remake the International Monetary Fund or to coordinate with other governments on interest-rate cuts and new government spending.
A first challenge is following through on the November 15 economic summit hosted by President George Bush. Going forward, Obama must balance giving greater authority to the newly-wealthy China and oil-producing states, whose money is needed to bail out the financial system, with Americans and Europeans reluctant to relinquish their waning political influence and tarnished market-based economic principles. The new president must demonstrate an ability to forge new international consensus without appearing to sacrifice US sovereignty. Squaring that circle will not be easy.
Leading that effort will be Obama’s new secretary of the Treasury. Washington insiders think it could be Timothy Geithner, head of the New York Federal Reserve Bank. Hardly a household name, Geithner is trusted on Wall Street, deeply involved in the US bailout of financial firms and, most important, as a public servant, has no blood on his hands from the recent banking collapse.
Obama’s second unexpected foreign policy challenge is American public opinion, which lately turned sharply against international engagement on a range of issues that American voters once supported, and on which foreign publics expect action.
By three to one, Americans want the next president to focus on domestic issues, not foreign policy, according to a September survey by the US Council on Foreign Relations. Fewer Americans than at any point in this decade assign high priority to preventing genocide (one in three favor such action), strengthening the United Nations (one in three), promoting and defending human rights (one in four) and reducing global spread of AIDS and other infectious diseases (one in two).
Obama must sell international engagement to Americans. His likely secretary of state, who many believe will be Senator John Kerry, the Democrat’s 2004 presidential candidate, lacks sufficient stature to make this sale on his own. With the bully pulpit of the White House, presidential leadership can turn public opinion. But, even with the deference accorded any new president, Obama will only have so much political capital to spend on foreign-policy concerns given domestic economic challenges.
Disengagement from Iraq has long been expected to be Obama’s principal foreign-policy challenge. He pledged to pull most US troops from Iraq within 16 months, and in mid-October, seven in 10 American voters said withdrawal was very important to them.
But this timetable may prove beyond Obama’s control. If American casualties increase in the months ahead, Obama will face demands from a war-weary, economically-strapped electorate to cut and run, even as America’s Middle Eastern and European allies fret about regional instability.
Afghanistan may prove a greater thorn in Obama’s side. He has pledged to step up the war there, and three in five Americans want to keep US troops in Afghanistan, according to the Pew Global Attitudes project. But majorities in France, Germany, Spain, Poland and Turkey - all NATO members with troops stationed in Afghanistan - want their forces to come home. In the last days of the campaign, Obama emphasised economic reconstruction in Afghanistan and non-military solutions; a recognition that his administration must accommodate Europeans’ sensibilities if the allied effort is to continue there. US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates is respected by NATO allies, and his reappointment, widely expected in Washington, may ease some anticipated frictions over Afghanistan. But fundamental differences between the allies over goals and tactics in Afghanistan will bedevil the Obama administration.
The Middle East is another problem area. Obama roundly criticised the Bush administration’s failure to pursue settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and Europeans believe this issue must be an Obama priority. Dennis Ross, president Clinton’s regional peace negotiator, is expected to have a senior role in the Obama State Department and will inject new energy into the effort. But Obama must walk a fine line with conservative Jews in the US who will attack the Obama administration for any perceived “sellout” of Israel, and whose support Obama needs for many domestic- policy initiatives.