Daniel W. Drezner

What did you expect?

A year after Barack Obama’s election, I’m seeing a lot of post-mortems on his administration’s first year in foreign policy.  Ben Smith’s Politico story is a nice template for them:  Foreign policy never goes according to campaign plan, but for President Barack Obama, who promised a hardheaded new engagement with the world, the last week ...

A year after Barack Obama’s election, I’m seeing a lot of post-mortems on his administration’s first year in foreign policy.  Ben Smith’s Politico story is a nice template for them: 

Foreign policy never goes according to campaign plan, but for President Barack Obama, who promised a hardheaded new engagement with the world, the last week and the weeks he sees looming ahead must be discouraging.

Across a region spanning Pakistan to the Mediterranean, foreign leaders seem to be challenging the very premise of his policy: that foreign countries can reasonably be persuaded to move in the direction of common interests, and that a better-loved America can get more done.

In Afghanistan, an all-out effort to promote a legitimate election turned into a scramble to prevent a civil war and ease the defrauded challenger off the stage. Iran persuaded the White House to drop its late-September deadline for action and then appears to have rejected a deal on nuclear fuel. Great powers such as Russia and China show no appetite for crucial concessions, while the U.S. Congress continues to block major action on a pillar of Obama’s policy goals — international action on climate change.

To which I say:  meh.  First, Smith’s premise about Obama’s foreign policy isn’t quite right.  Sure, I think Obama and his foreign policy team would love it if "foreign countries can reasonably be persuaded to move in the direction of common interests, and that a better-loved America can get more done."  But c’mon, these are not stupid people, and I’m pretty sure that they know the limits of diplomatic goodwill and reasoned discourse. 

Second, you always need to grade on a curve — i.e., how has Obama’s first ten months stacked up to prior administratons?  Most incoming administrations screw up plenty in their first year in office.  With Clinton, there was flip-flopping over Haiti, dithering over Bosnia, screw-ups over Japan, etc.  With Bush 43, there was a lack of consultation with allies over treaty withdrawals, a dramatic policy shift on North Korea that badly embarrassed South Korea’s leadership and eventually had to be walked back, and that whole failure-to-prevent 9/11 problem.  Even with George H.W. Bush, the first six months primarily consisted of a strategic review of the Soviet Union that was overtaken by events the moment it was finished. 

Will Obama have to walk back or reverse course on foreign policy?  He’s done so on Israel, to be sure, and might do so on Afghanistan.  He has had successes in Honduras, Russia and the Somali pirates, however.  So far, I’d say Obama is shooting par for the course. 

I haven’t been a huge fan of certain aspects of Obama’s foreign policy — like Philip Levy, I’m not thrilled with his trade policy.  Mostly, however, I’d characterize his foreign policy actions as reasonable — and pretty much what I’d expected a year ago today. 

What about you, dear readers — how do you grade Obama’s foreign policy? 

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