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The day after: what now for US foreign policy? A post-US Presidential election report

Published: Tuesday, 27th November 2012

On 7 November 2012, the day after the US re-elected President Barack Obama, The Ditchley Foundation hosted an event to analyse future US foreign policy in the House of Lords’ River Room, by kind permission of the Lord Speaker, Baroness D’Souza.

The event was introduced by the Foundation’s Chair Lord Robertson, and chaired by the Director, Sir John Holmes. Lord Robertson suggested that the biggest foreign policy issue facing the new President was the budget deficit and fiscal cliff; handling that well or badly would condition everything else. He was also worried about Afghanistan, where we seemed to have given up – it’s become all exit and no strategy.

The Director asked the panel whether we would see a fresh Obama approach to the issues that dominated his first term, from Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and the Middle East peace process, to China and the Asian pivot’s effect on transatlantic relations. How would he deal with cross-cutting and increasingly-urgent challenges like climate change, cyber security and non-proliferation? And would the President be able to make good on foreign policy promises with, potentially, continued gridlock on Capitol Hill?

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Chairman of the Commons Security Committee and former Defence and Foreign Secretary) thought Winston Churchill’s reference to “always relying on the Americans to do the right thing, once they had tried all the alternatives”, might apply to a re-elected Obama. Starting the next term of office with an experienced President would certainly be easier than having to begin from scratch again, for example on Iran. This would be the dominant issue. Obama had promised many times he would not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon – and this would, in the end, box him in.
Sir Malcolm reminded the audience of how, at the beginning of Obama’s first term, the new President had failed in his efforts to stop illegal Israeli settlements. Similar early mistakes would inevitably have happened to Romney. Hopefully Obama would address the issue of Israel-Palestine once more and have more success at a second attempt. He hoped Obama would also continue to aim for progress on nuclear weapons reductions, even if global zero was not realistic.

Professor Stefan Halper (Director of American Studies at Cambridge University), who had been up all night commentating on the election, said he expected Obama to pursue principled, multi-lateral policies, as witnessed in his successful reaction to Libya where he had sought UN support and no troops on the ground. Although many voices were calling for the US to have more involvement in Syria, Obama wanted to stay out, having learnt lessons from disastrous US involvements in previous situations such as Somalia.

He expected Obama to continue pressing to exert pressure on Iran – but would this solve the problem? Obama did not want more Middle East military adventures, but a policy of containment would be extremely difficult to sell domestically and to maintain.

China would also be a major issue for the US: the Americans feared further Chinese pressure in the South China Sea. The pivot to Asia would remain crucial. On Russia, the relationship with President Putin would remain tricky, but Obama saw this as a question of problem-management and not confrontation.

Sir Nigel Sheinwald (former UK Ambassador to the US) suggested that a second-term President did have more flexibility on some issues, including foreign policy, as Obama had suggested privately to Medvedev. But domestic issues and the fiscal cliff would dominate for the immediate future as Obama tried to push through a budget in a potentially gridlocked-House without compromising his broader vision.

More broadly, he thought Americans were going through an insecure period after the shock to their economic model and two financially-crippling foreign interventions. But they were still major players in the international community and would want to continue to lead in some areas. They would want to remain a global power, without conceding the palm to China, but to rely more on long-term partnerships than costly foreign adventures.

Obama’s style would remain one of calm and intelligent use of smart power. He would have to try again with Israel and Palestine; he wanted to move forward on trade liberalisation; and he would also probably have a go at negotiating directly with Iran, on a wider basis than just the nuclear problem. With Europe, his preoccupations were the future of the Eurozone and how far the EU could play a practical role in global issues.

The floor was opened for questions, and a lively debate ensued. Issues raised included Iran, the Middle East peace process, nuclear non-proliferation, defence spending, dealing with China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, future global energy policy, and US views of the UK’s position in Europe.