The one-year review: Surprises, disappointments, and chilling relationships

The one-year review: Surprises, disappointments, and chilling relationships

By Will Inboden


If one year ago on Election Day someone would have told me that the same President Obama whose campaign promised to repair America’s global image would spend his first year in office visibly rejecting human rights and democracy promotion, I would not have believed it. Though I and many others have commented on this previously, it still ranks as the biggest surprise (and biggest disappointment) of his foreign policy thus far. Especially since America’s historic commitment to human rights and democracy promotion has been one of its greatest soft power assets and sources of global goodwill.


One thing worthy of praise is the administration’s emerging Africa policy. President Obama’s speech in Ghana was an admirable call for improved governance, reduced corruption, growth through enterprise, and African responsibility for Africa’s future — and it could not have been delivered by a more effective messenger.

Constructive Criticism?

One growing worry is the Obama administration’s shaky relations with the Great Powers which — whether from poor personal chemistry or divergent interests — could significantly hinder U.S. leverage going forward on several fronts. U.S.-Japan relations are near their worst in a generation (though the Obama administration was dealt a tough hand with the DPJ’s election victory). The chill between Sarkozy and Obama is also hurting U.S. relations with France. Russia has thus far offered no significant reciprocal gestures for the U.S. capitulation on missile defense. Obama enjoys little chemistry with Gordon Brown (though to be fair, few leaders do) and has signaled indifference towards the U.S.-UK Special Relationship. U.S.-Germany ties are strong but will soon be tested by Germany’s economic relationship with Iran. The Obama administration’s China policy is too focused on financing U.S. debt while not pressing China to play a more constructive role on North Korea and Iran’s nuclear weapons programs. And while the administration is atoning for its early neglect of India by hosting Prime Minister Singh soon for a state visit, the U.S.-India relationship will need consistent and high level attention in order to reach its potential — attention that it is not clear the White House will maintain, especially if doing so incurs China’s displeasure.