Continuity and Foreign Policy

Morgane Atoumo


Obama and Biden – The White House via Flickr


In 2008, Obama entered the oval office full of hopes, his campaign promises had included a completely different approach to foreign policy than his Republican predecessor. Obama had seduced American citizens and the world with his clear opposition to the war in Iraq, his recognition of other players, his talks of taming American power by using soft power and diplomacy. However, the first months of his presidency proved difficult as Obama had to deal with the problems created during the Bush presidency: two controversial wars, the mistrust of Americans in the Middle East and other regions of the world, the controversies in American detention centres (Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo), the antagonisation of allies caused by unilateralism all the while saving the American economy from one of its worst financial crisis.

His foreign policy advocated defending the national interest, maintaining the security and prosperity of the US and its allies and promoting a strong economy, democracy and freedom around the world – principles engraved in the Grand Strategy of US foreign policy implemented since the early days of the Cold War and aiming to create an international order enhanced by US leadership. In fact, US foreign policy is more a matter of continuity, regardless of the political spectrum of its executor, than change.

Towards, Asia and the Pacific, Obama’s foreign policy can be qualified of rebalancing or as it later became known, the pivot strategy. In fact, the pivot strategy aimed at guaranteeing economic ties predominantly with rising-giant China while ensuring of its containment as a regional hegemon and enduring American influence in the Pacific. This strategy intended the creation a “new type of major power relationship” according to Obama but has been scattered with tensions over the South China Sea, China’s recent law governing foreign NGOs, disagreement over membership in China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Further alienating China, the US has strengthened ties with other Asian actors, enhanced its military ties with Vietnam and the Philippines, normalised relations with Myanmar, helped increase Japanese military activities and opened a new military base in Australia.

The goal for the next president will be to maintain US presence in the Pacific without antagonising China further, who has often viewed the US as meddling in Asian-Pacific relations. Economics will also be a central focus of the next president’s foreign policy in order to enhance bilateral agreements with China, diminish its partnership with Russia while demonstrating its influence in Asia.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sits between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius at the United Nations Headquarters after the P5+1 member nations concluded a nuclear deal with Iran in Geneva, Switzerland, on November 24, 2013 via Flickr Commons

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sits between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius at the United Nations Headquarters after the P5+1 member nations concluded a nuclear deal with Iran in Geneva, Switzerland, on November 24, 2013 via Flickr Commons


The Middle East is also likely to dominate the foreign policy agenda of the next president. In fact, he or she will inherit the challenges of the Obama administration and will have to formulate a comprehensive foreign policy for the Middle East. Dealing with ISIS will be a priority of the next administration. More than a year after its self-proclaimed califate, the group seems more established than ever and according to analysts, it could take up to 10 years to defeat the group without a ground force campaign. The next administration will need to assess the threat to the US (at the moment very minimal – ISIS is interesting in gaining regional influence) and its motivation to wipe out the group. If defeated, a clear solution will have to be formulated for the aftermath of the Iraqi state as stability has been jeopardised by tensions between Sunnis, Shias and Kurds. However, defeating the extremist group will not be possible without finding a real solution to the Syrian civil war. After the US supported democratic movements in the Middle East and the opposition in Syria (even though it was clear mid-2011 the Assad regime would not fall) the insurgency is now dominated by Islamist fronts such as Jabat al-Nusra (the Al Qaeda affiliate) and ISIS. While the Obama administration is opposed to the Assad regime, he has become a partner in the air campaign against ISIS. The next president will have to find a comprehensive solution to the resurgent civil war, which is breeding chaos and ground for Islamic and extremist groups to flourish and further destabilise the region.

The next administration will need to navigate the tight web of alliances in the Middle East especially regarding the Yemeni intervention where the Shia Houthis regime, backed by Iran is being bombed by a Sunni coalition led by Saudi Arabia. The Obama administration has been providing the coalition intelligence while simultaneously supporting pro-Iranian groups in Iraq, reaching a historic deal to limit Iranian nuclear capabilities and working in concert with the latter in the bombing of ISIS. Secretary of State John Kerry has proven to work relentlessly to secure a six-party deal with Iran reviving talks about its nuclear arsenal therefore the next president will need to work carefully to reinstate former president Hadi’s regime, who has been an ally in the fight against Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula while not reviving further the rift between Iran and Saudi Arabia, both fighting for regional hegemony. Finally, while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has fallen behind on the world stage due to recent development in the Middle East, the next administration is likely to revive peace talks and attempt to mend the US-Israeli relationship which is at its lowest since the 1970s.


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