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.
Mr. Katulis also pointed to China’s continued economic and military risings and the reactions by smaller Asian nations as issues likely to have “broad global implications.”
“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.
“Topping the list in this category is the uncertainty about Iran, with Syria’s civil war, the transition in Egypt, and the Israeli-Palestinian talks also competing for time on the agenda,” said Mr. Katulis. “The administration has done a good job keeping the possibility of a deal with Iran alive and putting more time on the clock for now, but the clock is ticking.”
The administration, he said, likely will continue to push for a historic peace agreement between Israelis and the Palestinians, particularly since Mr. Kerry seems so focused on it. “But,” Mr. Katulis said, “the Syrian civil war, and the growing terrorist threat there, as well as continued turmoil in Egypt, could serve to upset the whole agenda.”
One worrisome sign already: Ships waiting to remove Syria’s chemical weapons returned to port in Cyprus because Damascus missed a Dec. 31 deadline. Syria was supposed to have removed part of its chemical weapons arsenal for destruction Tuesday, but Syria’s prime minister blamed bureaucracy and security fears for delays in transporting the weapons to the Syrian port of Latakia.
Good news may be emerging on the global economic front, particularly since the U.S. and the European Union appear to have regained some of the footing they lost during the global recession.
In less-noticed tectonic shifts of 2013, the U.S. overtook Saudi Arabia as the world’s No. 1 oil producer and Mexico paved the way for private foreign investment to begin flowing into its longtime state-controlled oil industry. These two factors likely trigger major recalculations in the global economic pecking order.
Trouble at home
Serious U.S. influence and leadership over such trends may depend on the Obama administration’s ability to forge ahead with the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. These broad-based agreements aim to expand free trade with a focus on the European Union, Latin America and nations across Asia.
But the administration’s global economic agenda stands a good chance of being weighed down by political infighting and gridlock in Washington — or at least “stalled by complicated trade negotiations abroad and nonfunctional politics in the midterm year at home,” Mr. Katulis said.
Biting domestic politics, Mr. Adams said, won’t help the administration cope with the growing number of nations that have “drifted away in various ways from American leadership.”
“That’s going to be a domestic issue here at home because we’re in an election year and Republicans are going to do everything they can to say the Obama administration is declinist, is failing in providing leadership and is weak,” he said.
Mr. Adams pointed to the irony that there “is this option supported by the left of the Dems and the right of the GOP to pull back, go home and let everyone else in the world settle their own has — that we shouldn’t be sticking our nose into everyone else’s problems globally.”
“That’s the Barney Frank, Rand Paul view of the world,” he said. “But that’s not Obama. It’s not what’s he’s doing.”
The president also is not embracing the “traditional neocon and John McCain-Republican Party approach” of a more interventionist foreign policy, added Mr. Adams. “That’s not Obama, either.”
Instead, the administration is pursuing a third approach focused on simply responding to and trying to manage the “global rebalancing.”
“How do you manage the realities of a globe where the assertive use of American military power doesn’t always get you where you want but it doesn’t get you into trouble, either,” said Mr. Adams. “President Obama is going to get hammered politically in 2014 for failures of leadership, when in reality, I think what’s going on here has to do with the difficulties of trying to manage a rebalancing that would be tough for any president.”