Obama's Foreign Policy: Opportunities and Challenges

By Larrabee, F. Stephen | Insight Turkey, January 2009 | Go to article overview

Obama's Foreign Policy: Opportunities and Challenges


Larrabee, F. Stephen, Insight Turkey


The election of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States raises a number of critical questions for analysts and government officials in Turkey. How will US foreign policy change under Obama? What will be Obama's top foreign policy priorities? And above all, what are the implications of his election for Turkey and US-Turkish relations?

Predicting what Obama's foreign policy will look like at this early stage, however, is fraught with risks and must of necessity be somewhat speculative for several reasons. First, Obama has only been in national politics for a short period. He thus does not have an established track record in foreign policy nor a great deal of experience dealing with foreign affairs.

Second, although Obama has selected his Cabinet, many key policy positions at the critical sub-Cabinet levels in the various foreign policy bureaucracies, including the National Security Council staff in the White House, have not yet been filled. This process is not likely to be completed until late spring. Moreover, after taking office, the new administration will need to undertake a full-scale review of key policy issues and options. This will take months. Thus it will be some time before it will be possible to discern the contours of the administration's policies in key areas with any clarity.

Third, unanticipated events can derail a president's initial intentions and reshape his foreign policy agenda. John F. Kennedy's foreign policy was dealt a serious setback in the first weeks of his presidency by the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Lyndon Johnson's domestic agenda and foreign policy fell victim to the growing escalation of the Vietnam War. Richard Nixon's significant foreign policy achievements in his first term (detente with Russia, the opening to China) were overshadowed by the Watergate scandal, which paralyzed Nixon's presidency in his second term, eventually forcing him to resign in disgrace. And George W. Bush's initial foreign policy agenda was largely junked after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, as his administration increasingly focused on the war on terror and the conflict in Iraq.

Obama's Foreign Policy Outlook and Priorities

These considerations underscore the difficulty--and hazards--of trying to predict what Obama's foreign policy will look like. Nevertheless, the positions Obama has espoused on certain issues and some of his appointments to date give a rough clue to his main priorities and general worldview. This worldview differs in fundamental respects from the approach adopted on a number of important issues by the Bush administration.

In general, Obama is likely to rely more heavily on preventive diplomacy and be more discriminating about when and where to use military force. He is also likely to put greater emphasis on negotiated efforts at arms control than the Bush administration, which preferred unilateral arms control measures that involved fewer constraints on US freedom of action. Preventing nuclear terrorism and controlling "loose nukes" are also likely to be Obama's key priorities.

Finally, Obama is likely to give higher priority to the role of international law and to restoring Americas moral credibility, badly tattered by the invasion of Iraq and the Bush administration's indiscriminant prosecution of the "global war on terror." One of his first acts as president is likely to be to close down the military detention and interrogation center at Guantanamo, which has become a symbol for some of the abuses and excesses associated with the Bush administration's pursuit of the war on terror.

Obama's appointment of Susan Rice, one of his closest foreign policy advisors and a former assistant secretary of state for Africa in the Clinton administration, as ambassador to the United Nations--with Cabinet rank--also suggests that under Obama the UN will play an important role in US diplomacy and contrasts sharply with Bush's appointment of John Bolton, an outspoken neocon who made no secret of his disdain for the UN, as UN envoy. …

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