What will Obama do in foreign policy?
The first question about an Obama second term is whether he will be able to preserve U.S. interests in the continuing turmoil of the Middle East. But a second is whether his implicit calculation that the autocracies of Russia and China will remain stable for another five years will prove accurate.
"Give me space."
With those words, uttered to Russian President Dmitri Medvedev during what he thought was a private moment on March 26, Barack Obama summed up his foreign policy for 2012 - as well as his answer to the question of what he might do with a second term as U.S. president. For now, Obama's strategy is to delay the biggest decisions facing his administration abroad - from Europe and Russia to the Middle East and East Asia - and to avoid spelling out how he might handle them in 2013 and beyond.
In the case of Medvedev, Obama's request for space came in the context of Russian demands for concessions on NATO's plans for European missile defence. Rather than respond when pressed by the lameduck Russian president, Obama offered that "after my election I have more flexibility" to solve "all these issues, but particularly missile defence."
Arms control is hardly the only issue Obama is trying to put off. In the Middle East, the United States is steadfastly resisting being drawn into the incipient civil war in Syria, depending instead on weak UN peace initiatives. A week before meeting Medvedev, Obama phoned Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and urged him to refrain from provoking a new crisis with Israel by carrying out his threat to dissolve the Palestinian Authority. In Afghanistan, the White House has rebuffed calls from the left for a change of strategy while putting off until after the election the announcement of what will likely be an accelerated troop withdrawal plan for 2013.
The delay strategy has not always worked. A U.S. attempt to buy time in East Asia through a food-for-nuclear-freeze deal with North Korea backfired when the new regime of Kim Jong Eun tested a long-range rocket on April 12. But the administration's cautious response - it settled for a statement by the UN Security Council rather than seeking a new sanctions resolution - reflected the same approach of prioritising the avoidance of a crisis. Even if Pyongyang carries out a nuclear weapons test, as some outside experts expect, Obama's answer will likely be minimalist.
The critical test of the policy will be the negotiations with Iran on its nuclear programme due to resume on May 23 in Baghdad. The United States and its five partners in the talks are pushing for an interim deal with Tehran that would put the most dangerous elements of the Iranian programme on hold, while postponing a more lasting settlement. Success would mean Iran ending its enrichment of uranium to high levels (currently up to 20 percent purity), the export of its stockpile of some 100 kilograms of this highly-enriched fuel, and the de facto shutdown of the underground Fordow facility near Qom.
Such a bargain would push the threat of a crisis with Iran - and a military strike by Israel - past November. But failure of the talks might have the opposite effect. In particular, if Iran presses ahead with enrichment at Fordow in the coming months an Israeli strike could become inevitable. The Baghdad meeting could thus be the hinge between the success of Obama's election year strategy and a crisis that would intrude upon - and perhaps deeply influence - the U.S. election.
Barring such an emergency, Obama's campaign message on foreign policy will focus on the past rather than the future. So far the incumbent has been making two main points in his stump speeches: that Osama bin Laden was killed by an operation he ordered; and that U.S. troops have come home from Iraq and begun to withdraw from Afghanistan. "The tide of war is receding," is the signature phrase of Obama's speeches to a war-weary American public. As the campaign heats up, that will likely be coupled with the charge that a Mitt Romney presidency would reverse this trend, given Romney's hawkish rhetoric on Iran. In the meantime, Obama will strongly resist any action of his own to undercut his applause line - which is why Syrians can expect continuing U.S. passivity.
It is tempting to conclude that Obama's election-year game makes it impossible to know how he would manage foreign affairs in a second term. But beneath the political camouflage the president has offered several important signals about his intentions. One came in that meeting with Medvedev in Seoul, in which Obama underlined his interest in answering Russian objections about missile defence. As he explained in a press conference the following day, Obama hopes to negotiate a new U.S.-Russia strategic arms control agreement early in his second term - something that would require an accord on the planned European system. In Washington, the expectation is that Obama will meet Russia's demand for a written guarantee that the NATO deployment will not pose a threat to Russian nuclear forces - a concession that would probably provoke a backlash in the U.S. Congress, if not in Europe.
More broadly, Obama has been signaling his intention to focus on doing business with a Vladimir Putin restored to the Russian presidency - while essentially ignoring the signs that his autocracy may be vulnerable to a surging opposition and a weakening economy. Days after Putin's election in a March 4 vote that international observers described as neither free nor fair, the White House issued a statement saying that Obama had called Putin "to congratulate him on his recent victory" and propose that "the successful reset in relations should be built on in the coming years." The statement made no mention of democracy or human rights in Russia, and Obama has said nothing on the subject since the election.
Obama has invited Putin to meet him in Washington before the NATO Summit this month to discuss an agenda that will include the new nuclear pact. He has deferred to Putin on Syria, supporting the Moscow-backed Annan plan in the hope that Putin will help broker a deal between dictator Bashar al Assad and the Syrian opposition. White House lobbyists are pressing hard, meanwhile, for the repeal of a 1974 law limiting U.S. trade with Russia, while resisting a Congressional initiative, supported by many Democrats, that would tie the repeal to a new law punishing Russian human rights abusers.
"At a time of great challenges around the world, cooperation between the United States and Russia is absolutely critical to world peace and stability," Obama said in Seoul. In other words, the 'reset' of U.S.-Russian relations during Obama's first term will be redoubled in a second - and implicitly, a bet made that Putin will remain in power for many more years.
Obama has made the same wager on China's Xi Jinpeng, who is expected to take over leadership of the Communist Party later this year and, like Putin, expects to remain in power for a decade. When Xi made an introductory visit to Washington in mid-February he was treated with kid gloves: Obama devoted one vaguely-worded sentence to the subject of human rights during his greeting at the Oval Office, instead focusing on trade and geopolitical issues.
Even more striking has been official Washington's strict silence on the subject of the attempted defection of a senior police official from the city of Chongqing at the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, which occurred just days before Xi's visit. The incident triggered a political crisis in China that has led to the purging of Chongqing's populist Communist leader, Bo Xilai; this opaque power struggle has all too clearly illuminated the instability built into the Chinese political system.
Yet the Obama administration appears to regard the affair as irrelevant to its policy: Obama remains focused on forging a relationship with Xi. Just as his priority with Putin is arms control, Obama's China policy centres on issues, like the valuation of the yuan, that depend on striking deals with leaders - while overlooking their domestic policies and challenges, including human rights.
This likely strategy is, of course, broadly consistent with Obama's first term policy, which elevated 'engagement' with other leaders, from Putin to Iran's Ali Khamenei, to something approaching an ideology. What is striking is that this appears to ignore what could be seen as the lesson of the single biggest global event of the last four years, the Arab uprising. In the Middle East, Obama also aimed at working with autocratic leaders like Assad and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak; his Cairo address in 2009, with its focus on "mutual respect" and the need for a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, was aimed as much at them as at their people.
In 2009 and 2010, Obama ignored warnings that Khamenei was intractably opposed to detente with the United States, and that Mubarak's attempt to perpetuate his autocracy was unsustainable. The result was that he was wrongfooted first by the Iranian Green movement of 2009, and then by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt 18 months later. In both cases the U.S. reaction was weak; critical opportunities to promote democratic change were missed.
The first question about an Obama second term is whether he will be able to preserve U.S. interests in the continuing turmoil of the Middle East, and avoid a military conflict with Iran, or Iran's acquisition of a nuclear weapon. But a second is whether his implicit calculation that the autocracies of Russia and China will remain stable for another five years will prove accurate.
In the case of Russia, there is plenty of room for doubt. The strategy employed by Putin for the last dozen years - purchasing the tolerance of Russians for political repression with a rising living standard financed by oil and gas exports - is likely exhausted. Though he has promised hundreds of billions of dollars in pay increases for teachers and doctors and in subsidies for children and students, not to mention $790 billion in new military spending, Putin is unlikely to find the necessary funding. The oil price needed to balance Russia's budget has risen from $34 a barrel in 2007 to $117 this year, and outside estimates of the price that Putin will require to meet his pledges range from $130 to $150.
What is more, even Putin recognises that the old political bargain is breaking down. "Our society is completely different from what it was at the turn of the 20th century," said an oped he authored that was published by The Washington Post before the presidential election. "People are becoming more affluent, educated and demanding. The results of our efforts are new demands on the government and the advance of the middle class above the narrow objective of guaranteeing their own prosperity."
In theory, Putin's recognition of the problem might lead him to address it by liberalising the political system and attracting greater Western investment in the next several years. But if it is authentic, liberalisation will inevitably threaten Putin and his circle of ex-KGB men. Free media will ask what happened to the billions of dollars that have been siphoned out of state companies and deposited in foreign bank accounts. A parliament with a real opposition would investigate who was behind the murder of journalists like Anna Politkovskaya, gunned down on Putin's birthday in 2006, and of dissidents such as former spy Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned by radiation in London.
This is why many experts on Russia in Washington expect that Putin will refrain from reforms and stick to the repression and anti-American policies he has adopted in recent months. That, of course, could end up strengthening the opposition movement, and possibly touch off a Russian version of the Arab Spring. Either way, a U.S. policy focused on redoubling the deal making of the first term is likely to be undercut.
A similar risk exists in China. Even if this year's leadership transition goes forward without further incident, China faces a deeper threat to its political and economic model. In a remarkable report co-written with the World Bank and released early this year, Chinese technocrats at the Development Research Center of the State Council concluded that to sustain its economic growth in the next 20 years, "it is imperative that China adjusts its development strategy," including by allowing free debate, establishing the rule of law and opening up the political process.
The conclusion of China 2030 sounds a lot like that of Putin: "The rising ranks of the middle class and higher education levels will inevitably increase the demand for better social governance and greater opportunities for participation in public policy debate and implementation. Unmet, these demands could raise social tensions."
Though the language is bureaucratic, the message is unmistakable: in China as in Russia, the autocratic system that the world takes for granted is unsustainable. If there is one clear conclusion to be drawn about Obama's plans for a second term, it is that he has chosen to disregard this warning.