Most Europeans are surely relieved by the re-election of Barack Obama as US President. Mitt Romney’s confrontational foreign policy stances made many non-Americans nervous. Plus, a new President can take at least 18 months to develop international relationships. The question is – at this time of great uncertainty for the global economy, instability in the Middle East and growing tensions in East Asia – how much change or continuity in US foreign policy should be expected over the next four years?
Freed of electoral constraints, a second-term President can usually take more risks in foreign policy. For example, Obama may step up US engagement in the Syrian conflict, including further support to the opposition and pushing for Assad to abdicate. He is also in a stronger position to keep up diplomatic pressure, including sanctions, on Iran, to convince Tehran not to develop nuclear weapons – and to convince Israel not to carry out unilateral military strikes.
Strengthening the US economy is his main domestic priority, so after the immediate necessity to strike a grand bargain with Congressional Republicans on debt, a strong push for new trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific trade deals is likely. Given the growing interdependencies between the American and Chinese economies, the President will quickly want to establish a constructive relationship with the new leadership in Beijing. And Afghanistan has not gone away; managing the transition from NATO to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014 cannot be expected to go smoothly.
Second-term Presidents also greatly concern themselves with their legacy, and the issues closest to their heart. Following Hurricane Sandy, Obama can re-invigorate the US role in global climate change negotiations. He can also re-calibrate US involvement in Israel-Palestine, concomitantly re-building America’s image in the parts of the world that are predominantly Muslim. Plus, he will probably want to renew global efforts to reduce stocks of nuclear weapons, known as Global Zero, building on the 2010 New START treaty with Russia which placed new limits on nuclear missiles, warheads and launchers.
And Europe? The Eurozone crisis has greatly concerned the Obama administration, which supports closer European integration on fiscal and banking matters – but not at the cost of stemming growth. More than any previous US President, Obama has also strongly supported European efforts to create a stronger EU role in foreign policy. If anything, the Obama administration has been disappointed with the lack of progress and results from the EU. Alongside their struggles to overcome the Eurozone crisis, if they work to get their foreign policy house in order, Obama’s second term offers Europeans a great opportunity to develop a much closer and more effective EU-US relationship on global affairs – will they take it?