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Americas

A good effort, but US foreign policy in 2010 has made little impact

The past year wasn’t a very successful one for US foreign policy. Analysts argue that the Obama administration can claim only one major success and that the future doesn’t look much brighter either.

President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the White House in Washington in March 2010

Success in foreign policy was hard to come by for the US in 2010

The list of foreign policy issues demanding the attention of the White House and the State Department in 2010 was impressive: Aside from intractable challenges such as the war in Afghanistan, international terrorism, Iran’s nuclear program, efforts to close the Guantanamo prison camp and nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, came a slew of other topics such as the revival of the Middle East peace process, fulfilling the promise of the reset of relations with Russia, preventing a full-scale war in the Korean peninsula and managing the fallout of the WikiLeaks document dump.

Taking a half-time tally of Barack Obama's foreign policy in his first term, scholars interviewed by Deutsche Welle paint a bleak picture with only a few bright spots.

"I would say that his foreign policy was moderately good with no great achievements frankly," says Marcin Zaborowski, director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs in Warsaw. "We haven't really had a breakthrough not even in the past year, but in the two years of Obama's presidency which is not perhaps necessarily due to a lack of his leadership skills, but a reflection of the scale of problems that the United States is facing."

Stephen Larrabee, a European security expert at the RAND Corporation in Washington, gives Obama a mixed half-time report card: "I would give him an A- for recognizing the basic problems and laying the foundations for their long-term resolution. I would give him a C for actual results so far."

Long list of unresolved challenges

Larrabee and Zaborowski cite the collapse of the US-brokered peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians and the unsuccessful efforts of diplomatic engagement with Iran as major failures of US foreign policy.

What's more, in the Korean peninsula, earlier US hopes for an improvement of relations with the North Korea were recently crushed by a military crisis that stopped only short of an all-out war between the two Korean states.

"I would say that the jury is still out, but the prognosis is not particularly good at the moment either for Afghanistan nor for Pakistan," adds Larrabee.

President Barack Obama meets with President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Yokohama, Japan, November 2010

Experts view the improved relations with Russia as Obama's major achievement

On China and India, Obama has pretty much continued the policy of previous administrations, argue the experts, while they view positively the new NATO strategy where the US was able to square the circle by uniting diverging European positions with Washington's wish for an updated blueprint of NATO's mission.

"That delivered what the US administration wanted while it reassured the Europeans at the same time," says Zaborowski.

Relations with Russia

Asked to name the major successes in the international arena in the past year, both analysts come up with one and the same issue: "I think the biggest foreign policy achievement of this year and actually of the two years of the Obama presidency is the relationship with Russia," argues Zaborowski. "The reset has been more or less successful."

While the thawing of relations with Russia is certainly not irreversible, the experts consider it so far as the only tangible result of Obama's foreign policy other than the more general achievement to have turned around the dismal image and perception of the US around the world.

The analysts also praise Obama's ability to spot and work on the multitude of pressing issues facing the world today and the hefty load of unsolved problems he inherited from his predecessor. But, they argue, after nearly two years in office it will become increasingly difficult to convey that to the electorate in the US and people across the world who demand solutions.

A stark reminder that Obama now owns the problems, domestic and international, was delivered to the White House by the way of strong Republican gains in the recent midterm elections.

"Of course he will be judged and voted on what he has been able to do so far rather than the fact that he has laid the basis for important changes that will take a longer time," says Larrabee.

Global power projection

But time for foreign policy will be limited for Obama in the next year, predicts Larrabee: "He will really have to concentrate on internal and domestic affairs. This will be a real case of 'it's the economy stupid,' that is, his first priority will have to be to try to improve the economy and particularly to lower the unemployment rate."

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with Chinese president Hu Jintao, on the sidelines of BRIC summitt in Brazil in April 2010

US influence in the world is increasingly challenged by other powers

Looking ahead to the more distant future in 10 or 20 years time, both analysts see the trend of a relative decline of US weight around the world continuing, but caution against writing Washington off.

"The United States is not where it was in the 1990s," notes Zaborowski. "It is less powerful than it was. But it does and will remain obviously the only superpower and a very powerful nation."

Due to the fact that other powers like India, China, Brazil and Turkey are going to continue to play a more important role, says Larrabee, "this will mean that relative to where it is today, US influence may be somewhat less, but it still will be the most influential of all the powers."

Author: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge

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