How I would grade Obama’s foreign policy to date

I see that while I was away my esteemed co-bloggers Stephen Walt and Marc Lynch have been evaluating Barack Obama’s foreign policy performance — start here, then go here and here.  I’m still getting all the cotton out of my head from my Israel sojourn, but what I find striking about the debate is how Middle-East-focused ...

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I see that while I was away my esteemed co-bloggers Stephen Walt and Marc Lynch have been evaluating Barack Obama's foreign policy performance -- start here, then go here and here

I'm still getting all the cotton out of my head from my Israel sojourn, but what I find striking about the debate is how Middle-East-focused it is.  Walt focuses on four key areas:  Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel/Palestine.  All important hot spots, to be sure -- but shouldn't a good realist be concerned about great power politics?  (to be fair, Walt does link to Thomas Wright's intriguing essay in The Diplomat about how the Obama administration is rethinking its China policy). 

As a global political economy person with a strong realpoliitik streak, here are the four issues I think should be given the largest weighting in any grading of Obama: 

I see that while I was away my esteemed co-bloggers Stephen Walt and Marc Lynch have been evaluating Barack Obama’s foreign policy performance — start here, then go here and here

I’m still getting all the cotton out of my head from my Israel sojourn, but what I find striking about the debate is how Middle-East-focused it is.  Walt focuses on four key areas:  Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel/Palestine.  All important hot spots, to be sure — but shouldn’t a good realist be concerned about great power politics?  (to be fair, Walt does link to Thomas Wright’s intriguing essay in The Diplomat about how the Obama administration is rethinking its China policy). 

As a global political economy person with a strong realpoliitik streak, here are the four issues I think should be given the largest weighting in any grading of Obama: 

1)  Great power politics:  This is where Obama deserves his best marks, despite some occasional rocky patches.  It’s safe to say that relations with Russia have been on the mend for quite some time.  Wright is correct to point out the ups and downs with China, but the administration has reacted quite adroitly to China’s renewed confidence on the regional and global stage.  U.S. relations with key Pacific Rim allies — South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, India, and even Vietnam if you want to go that far — have all been trending upwards.  China now has to process these events, and whether its desire to throw its weigtht around is worth the price of a balancing strategy.  This wasn’t how Obama planned things to go with China, but given Beijing’s behavior, I think they improvised and adapted quite well in this sphere.  GRADE:  A-

2)  Correcting imbalances in the global economy:  The last G-20 summit in Toronto demonstrated how poorly the Obama administration has done on this front.  The administration went into that summit arguing that some countries need to continue priming the fiscal pump.  The resulting communique did not reflect that assessment.  Deficit hawks have won the war of ideas here — which would be fine if surplus countries like Germany and China balanced that approach by consuming more.  They ain’t going in that direction, however.  There’s been minimal progress on yuan revaluation, and real foot-dragging in the Eurozone about fixing what ails that region.  Given the high hopes Obama administration put on the G-20, this has been a thoroughly disapponting performance to date:  GRADE:  D 

3)  Trade:  Blech.  Let me repeat that — blech.  I understand that the administration is on barren political terrain when dealing with this issue.  Still, the phrase "Obama administration’s trade agenda" is pretty much a contradiction in terms at this point.  The Doha round is dead, and the only trade issue that has the support of policy principals is the National Export Initiative — and you know what I think about that.  Unlike the other three issues, the administration hasn’t even bothered to put much effort onto this one — though the recent pledge to get the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) ratified is promising.  GRADE:  F

4)  Nuclear nonproliferation:  Even an IPE guy like myself appreciates the virtues of a world in which nuclear weapons are heavily regulated.  The Obama administration’s performance in this area has been mixed.  START has been negotiated but not ratified, and the Nuclear Safety Summit seems like it was a success.  Iran and North Korea seem unbowed, but at the same time the Obama administration has reinforced the multilateral arrangements designed to contain both countries (though this is interesting).  At the same time, you can’t just grade for effort at this level, and the results have been disappointing with both countries.  There is also something of a strategic mismatch between the Obama administration’s nuclwar ambitions and grand strategy ambitions.  GRADE:  B-

All grades are incomplete at this stage, but looking above, I’m more than a bit troubled.  I don’t see the rebalancing or trade grades impriving anytime soon.  If Obamas was one of my advisees, I’d probably have him stop by my office hours for a friendly but firm chat at this juncture.

Question to readers:  what important issues did Walt, Lynch, and I overlook ? And how would you grade Obama?

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner

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