Away from the Middle East, Barack Obama’s foreign policy has been largely about turning to Asia, sending mixed signals to Latin America, ignoring sub-Saharan Africa – and hoping that Europe and its implacable crisis go away.
Arguably the single most important strategic decision of his first term was the “pivot” to Asia – the promise this year to deploy 60% of naval assets to the Asia-Pacific region by 2020. Chinese analysts say this is the principal reason why bilateral relations are now at their lowest point since Obama became president.
Otherwise, the Obama administration has taken care not to upset the Chinese unduly. Obama himself waited more than two years before privately meeting the Dalai Lama; the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, made it clear early on that disagreements over human rights should not interfere with co-operation on broader issues between the world’s two foremost economic powers.
The other rising power of the east, India, usually enjoys better relations with the US when a Republican president is in office. But Obama, who visited India in November 2010, charmed his hosts with flattering references to their country’s heritage and booming economy, a stab at speaking Hindi in parliament and a promise of support for a permanent seat on the United Nations security council, a long-cherished ambition that is extremely unlikely to be fulfilled any time soon. If the style was there — Indians were delighted by the youthful charisma of the president and his wife compared with the stuffy and status-obsessed local politicians — the substance has been less evident, however. Major defence deals have gone elsewhere, the Indians are deeply concerned by the US rush to exit Afghanistan – which they fear could benefit hostile neighbour Pakistan – and nothing as significant as the 2008 US-India nuclear deal that his predecessor pushed through has even been spoken of.
On Africa, Obama – the son of a Kenyan – has spent less than 24 hours in sub-Saharan Africa as president – and failed to produce a signature policy initiative, leaving many with a sense of anti-climax. “The president’s Kenyan heritage inspired unreasonably high hopes for a robust Africa policy, but his administration has failed to meet even the lowest of expectations,” wrote Todd Moss recently in Foreign Affairs.
“Even Obama’s most vocal supporters quietly admit that he has done much less with Africa than previous presidents have.”
But Clinton has made four trips and notched up 15 African countries. Most recently she was accompanied by executives from some of America’s leading companies including Boeing, Walmart and FedEx. This underlines an evolving philosophy of seeing Africa more as investment destination than aid-hungry victim. Militarily, America’s backing of African Union peacekeepers in Somalia has been a quiet triumph but al-Qaida’s tentacles now stretch to countries such as Mali. Despite the disappointments, Obama still commands popular support – Conakry, the capital of Guinea, has more than one “Obama” cafe and restaurant.
Obama has tweaked rather than transformed US policy towards Latin America, despite the increased influence and integration of a region that is growing economically and becoming more dependent on China. Aside from a slight relaxation of the embargo on Cuba in 2009, the White House has largely continued the approach of previous administrations by putting a priority on the (losing) battle against narcotics trafficking. Promises to put more emphasis on reducing US demand as well as Latin American supply have failed to produce results: drug use and murder rates are both rising.
Mixed signals on other matters have not helped to impress other nations in the region. The US initially condemned the 2009 coup in Honduras against the leftwing leader José Manuel Zelaya but has subsequently supported the administration of Porfirio Lobo. Obama also signed a free trade agreement with Colombia despite opposing such a measure when it was initiated under the previous administration.
The rhetorical pitch has, however, softened compared with the era of George W Bush. The Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, has said he would choose Obama if he could vote in the forthcoming election, which is likely to be a mixed blessing.
On Russia, an early move to “reset” relations and make progress on nuclear arms reduction has been more than outweighed by a new deterioration in relations, sparked by Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on the opposition, and diametrically opposed world views on Syria.
This leaves Europe and the spiralling debt and currency crisis. The Obama administration has been exasperated by Europe’s response to the crisis and has consistently urged policymakers to take dramatic, once-and-for-all action to signal that the eurozone is safe. Obama knows that a Grexit (Greece leaving the eurozone) or an unravelling of the currency would decimate global growth and hammer the US economy – and hurt his re-election bid. But the American view of economic crisis management has been totally at odds with that of the Germans, who are minded to respond: where did the global financial crisis start anyway?