Barack Obama will soon embark on his second term. Liberated from thoughts of re-election, second-term presidents’ thoughts often turn to their legacy. Obama’s legacy will be measured primarily by how well he confronts domestic challenges, from his upcoming push for gun control to America’s fiscal cliff. But he also faces difficult times on the foreign policy front.
President Obama’s place in US and world history will depend in part on his handling of international crises. Like any other US president, his job description is to maintain US leadership in the world. But unlike his opponents, who believe that America can regain its former might with minimal effort, Obama understands that the world has changed. It has become more complex and nonlinear. Attempts to shape events are fraught with huge risks, and the result is, increasingly often, the opposite of what was intended. Obama’s wariness, which his critics interpret as weakness or even cowardice, is in fact prudence and a sensible aversion to risk.
Obama does not embrace open hegemony or aggressive interference in other countries’ affairs, although he was unable to completely kick this habit in his first term – America is still America, after all. Instead, he has placed greater emphasis on diplomacy and multilateral institutions that can shoulder some of the United States’ responsibility for resolving global crises. And lastly, Obama believes in solid, if not long-term, agreements with countries that are not US allies.
If Chuck Hagel is confirmed as Obama’s next defense secretary, the president’s inner circle will boast at least one high-profile member who thinks the US should negotiate with the country’s enemies, such as Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah. The White House has already announced its intention to accelerate the transition to Afghan responsibility for security (something many have criticized as unduly hasty), leaving behind just a small force after US withdrawal.
On the other hand, Obama’s first term showed that the ability to understand today’s new realities does not automatically equal the ability to navigate it. Since the end of the 2000s, US foreign policy has chiefly been reactive. The US has not formulated a strategy, which may in any case be impossible given the unpredictable global situation. But the US administration cannot admit this, because it would be tantamount to admitting that America is no longer the dominant power, just one among many. It may be the world’s strongest power, but it is as powerless as any other country to dictate events.
Obama will most likely continue to tout the United States as a global leader, while gradually scaling down its ambitions and separating priorities from peripheral matters. Asia will continue to figure prominently in US foreign policy, especially given China’s continued rise, while some traditional political goals will have to be reassessed. But the inescapable fact is that the US will have to cut spending to put its fiscal house in order, and America will therefore be unable to sustain the same level of activity around the world.
Russia has the potential to be an ideal partner for America. The Cold War has retreated into the past, reducing the importance of Europe, where the lingering inertia of this confrontation remains the strongest. There are major differences over certain regional conflicts (Syria), but this is a normal feature of relations between great powers that are not allies. These differences cannot provoke the kind of dangerous deterioration in relations that happened over Georgia in 2008. Besides, Russia still holds a golden share in some areas of major importance for the United States. In short, the time seems ripe for bargaining, especially since Obama is eager to strike deals his country badly needs.
Russian-US relations at the threshold of Obama’s second term can be described as paradoxical. Russia is not a priority for the US, yet President Obama still hopes Moscow will help him resolve certain key issues. The White House and the Kremlin are not spoiling for a fight, but they still clashed in late 2012 over the Magnitsky Act and Russia’s response, the “Dima Yakovlev law.” Tensions are running high, even though there are no objective reasons for this: nothing has happened to provoke any new fundamental disagreements.
The US-Russia parliamentary standoff over the Magnitsky Act was mostly emotive and symbolic, but it seems that both self-perception and how the different sides view each other are becoming increasingly material in the international environment.
There is no rational explanation for this. Sovereignty and the degree to which an internal matter should be an international issue lie at the heart of the dispute over the Magnitsky Act and Moscow’s strange response. The recent debacle was provoked by Magnitsky’s death, but a different pretext would have served just as well.
US-Russian relations are unlikely to deteriorate. Last December’s wave of hostility will gradually subside, leaving behind an unpleasant residue. But relations will not improve, as the two countries do not have an agenda that suits their present and future goals. Washington actually hopes “to reset the rest” and to continue working with Russia on issues that saw some success in 2009-2010, especially nuclear arsenal cuts. However, Russia is not particularly amenable to discussions, as it is satisfied with the current state of affairs.
This is the background, but it is unclear how it will go on to shape events. Talks on strategic stability remain the kernel of US-Russian relations. The 2000s showed that when one side (read the Bush administration) loses interest in arms reductions, relations deteriorate. But no one has been able to find a replacement for the ballistic missile issue. The highly unpredictable international situation will only serve to further undermine relations, fuelling mutual suspicion rather than fostering rapprochement in the interests of addressing common challenges.