Perhaps the satirists at the Onion were not joking when they reported in November 2008 that Barack Obama had just been given the worst job in the country. Look what he inherited: a global economic crisis, two difficult wars, erosion of the non-proliferation regime by North Korea and Iran, deterioration of the Middle East peace process and the rising strength of China, just for starters. Obama has been criticized for trying to do too much too soon, but it is hard to see which of these items could have been postponed. Dropping any of these balls would consume his political capital, but by juggling them all, he ran the danger of letting Bush’s legacy define his foreign policy. Obama’s dilemma was how to manage this sad inheritance while creating his own vision of how Americans should deal with the world.
He did that with his theme of “a new era of engagement with the world.” Through a series of symbolic gestures and speeches (Prague, Cairo, Accra, the United Nations and others), Obama worked wonders in restoring American soft, or attractive, power in his first year of office. As a recent Pew poll reported, “in many countries opinions of the United States are now as positive as they were at the beginning of the decade before George W. Bush took office.” As an Australian commentator summarized, “it helps a country’s public image when its head of state is widely liked rather than widely disliked.”
Skeptics regard soft power as overrated, but it is a mistake to discount the role that transformative leaders can play in changing the context of difficult issues. Power involves setting agendas and creating others’ preferences as well as pushing and shoving. Soft power alone rarely solves hard problems. That is why the Administration speaks of “smart power” that successfully combines hard and soft power resources in different contexts. But soft power can create an enabling rather than a disabling environment for policy. Diplomats report that Obama’s success in brokering agreements at NATO and G-20 summits was assisted by his popularity. The New York Times reported that, at the G-8 meeting in L’Aquila last July, after Obama finished speaking about food aid “the pledges jumped by $5 billion, according to several officials present.”
Critics contend that Obama has been all words and no deeds. They portray him as a rock star who won a Nobel Prize on the basis of promise rather than performance. They scoff at his popularity and note that the Middle East remains intractable, North Korea nuclear, Afghanistan unsettled and Iran difficult. But no serious analyst would expect otherwise in the short term. Certainly Bush and Cheney’s hard power approach did not solve these problems. In a recent National Journal poll of congressional insiders, the partisan split was clear. Democrats graded Obama’s handling of foreign policy with an average grade of B+ while Republicans gave him a D+. Of course, the only accurate grade at the end of Obama’s first year has to be “Incomplete.”
Nonetheless, in addition to words there have also been some important deeds. First and foremost was the handling of the economic crisis. When Obama came into office, he was told by his economic advisors that there was one chance in three of a 1930s-style depression. If he had not avoided that disaster, all else would have paled. This required not only an economic stimulus package at home, but also international coordination. In contrast to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s nationalistic response in the 1930s, Obama worked with other countries to coordinate fiscal stimulus and financial rescue measures and to restrict protectionist steps. Despite (WTO-legal) measures against imports of Chinese tires, the amount of protectionism has been much less than in the 1930s and less than many observers predicted. Moreover, Obama used the crisis to almost effortlessly accomplish what many had suggested for years: Transform the G-8 into a broader institutional framework of a G-20 that includes the emerging economies. Obama’s focus on the economic crisis was not only the right priority; it also produced significant results.
Closely related to the economic crisis has been Obama’s handling of relations with China. How America responds to the rise of Chinese power is one of the most important foreign policy challenges of the 21st century. Here, Obama built on Bush’s accomplishments and broadened the Treasury-led economic meetings to create a strategic dialogue co-chaired by the State Department, with an agenda that includes climate change as well as other multilateral issues. At the same time, he has realized that maintaining close alliances with Japan and Australia and good relations with India helps to sustain the hard power capabilities that will shape the environment for a rising China.
A third significant accomplishment of the first year has been his reframing the issue of nuclear non-proliferation, which many experts saw as being in crisis at the end of the Bush era. By embracing the long-term goal of a non-nuclear world (though perhaps not in his lifetime), Obama reiterated a longstanding American commitment to reduce the role of nuclear weapons that is written into Article 6 of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Moreover, he followed up by negotiating with Russia to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty by the end of 2010. In addition, he has raised the non-proliferation issue on the agenda both at the UN and the Pittsburgh G-20 meeting. The skillful exposé there of Iran’s secret enrichment facility at Qom, along with improved relations with Russia, helped to bring Iran to the negotiating table (though the results of having done so will not be known for some time). Similarly, it looks likely that China will again corral North Korea into the Six-Party Talks designed to contain Pyongyang’s threat.
Some critics have charged that these accomplishments, plus efforts to unblock the stalemates in Sudan and Burma, have been achieved at the price of giving up moral clarity on human rights. But public proclamations are often less effective than long-term strategies in promoting human rights. Obama’s carefully located speech in Ghana, an African country that recently had a successful democratic change of government, illustrated such an approach. Moreover, an Administration with staunch human rights advocates like Susan Rice and Samantha Power is likely to formulate the issue in such strategic terms.
Of course, the big exams lie ahead. How will Obama deal with Afghanistan? Can he maintain the progress that has been made in Iraq? Can George Mitchell make any progress in the Middle East? Will non-proliferation efforts remain on track? Will the United States promote global public goods such as an open international economy and coping with climate change? These will be the tests on which historians will grade him a decade from now. But while his current course grade is incomplete, he is off to a much better start than his critics admit.