The U.S. pullout from Afghanistan, Syria’s raging civil war and missed deadlines to disarm, a potential breakthrough nuclear deal with Iran, Chinese military muscle-flexing in Asia, a rapidly evolving and amorphous al Qaeda terrorist threat, a global backlash against American spying activities — Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s first full year as the top U.S. diplomat promises to be busy in a foreign policy landscape increasingly resistant to American dominance.
But analysts predict that the Obama administration is likely to hold firm to its pursuit of neutrality on the world stage by seeking diplomacy over confrontation and steering away from expensive, conventional U.S. military engagement as a strategy for containing the world’s troublemakers.
Any number of single, unpredictable events could shake the international order in ways unseen, as was the case in mid-2013 when the horrific chemical attack blamed on the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad suddenly killed more than 1,400 people, bringing the White House to the brink of military action before a surprising cooperative push by Moscow and Washington struck a deal to destroy Syrian chemical weapon stocks.
The biggest foreign policy challenge for the Obama administration this year will center on how to maintain deep and sustained U.S. influence in such situations, in a world where a growing number of rising powers are gaining leverage and bent on dominating the economic, political and military developments in their own regions.
“There is a global rebalancing going on,” said Gordon Adams, a professor of U.S. foreign policy at American University in Washington. “It’s really messy and I think it’s going to pose the biggest challenge to American leadership not only over the next year but in the several coming years as well.
“Not only China, but Iran, the Saudis, the Turks, the Brazilians, they’re all asserting themselves in their own regions and they are not listening to the U.S.,” he said. “It’s not because we don’t carry a big stick; it’s because they’re doing their own rebalancing. We can’t tell people what to do anymore. We spent 50 years doing that because those assets, and our economy, were so powerful that we could. That’s all changing very quickly.”
Mr. Adams said such realities were exposed last year by the global “fracas” surrounding revelations by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden about the agency’s snooping activities targeting citizens in nations considered traditional adversaries as well as those that have been allies of the United States.
“It exposed, if you will, a kind of American assumption that we can write these rules and get what we want,” he said. “But now we’re getting blowback and it’s from Germany, it’s from Brazil and France, from people who have normally been our good friends and allies.”
Such blowback appears to underscore just how fluid the landscape of international alliances has become as the world moves deeper into the 21st century. For the Obama administration, responding to international frustration — whether it be toward the NSA’s spying activities or Washington’s unilateral use of drones to clandestinely target and kill suspected terrorists in foreign lands — likely will remain high on the agenda.
This year, said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, will bring “continued debate on the full range of issues related to intelligence reform and the impact our intelligence agencies are having overseas.”
“This includes the continued debate about the NSA, which had a major impact on the U.S. image in the world, as well as the ongoing debate about the use of drone strikes and the rise of the special operations command,” Mr. Katulis said.
“I suspect that the Obama administration will maintain its overall stance of pragmatically trying to deal with growing challenges [in East Asia] without overplaying or underplaying its hand,” he said. “It will continue to engage China constructively but call out its negative actions when necessary.”
Elsewhere in the world, Washington will have to cope with the prospect of a security meltdown in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces and attempt to maintain serious influence in an unstable Middle East.