President Obama's first term in office was met by high international expectations for the changes he would make. But this time around, limits to Obama's diplomacy are expected.
When United States President Barack Obama gives his inaugural address today for his second term, the world won’t be glued to their television sets as when the American leader first took office in 2009.
Then, hopes for President Obama, who took office after the globally unpopular George W. Bush, were nothing short of outsized. And nothing better illustrates that than the Nobel Peace Prize he was awarded not even a year after taking the helm as the United States's 44th president.
From Middle East populations expecting new engagement, to Africans who thought the first black American leader would finally bring meaningful development to their continent, to Russians anticipating a “reset” of their deteriorating ties with the US – Obama took over at a time of global instability and crisis. With the US mired in domestic problems, he had to maintain a focus at home while, to many, his foreign policy approach looked conservative and status-quo.
In his second term, few expect great divergence from the first. That means a US administration navigating disparate conflicts in the Muslim world and struggling to define a coherent, consistent policy in the region. And with other big international issues on the horizon – from a potential conflict over Iran’s nuclear program to the deepening Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the rise of China – most of the world will have to vie for the bit of political capital leftover.
But unlike his first term, limits to Obama's diplomacy are expected this time around. Popularity for Obama, while still high around the globe, has slipped as US action, and inaction, has been criticized. And today, many countries say they expect little from Obama's second term, which some say may make international relations easier.
“The scaled down expectation means that it will be easier [for Obama] to meet expectations,” says Joe Barnes, a foreign relations expert at Rice University’s Baker Institute and a former US State Department diplomat. “He is a pretty good president, he is a bright charismatic man, he is not a miracle worker, and maybe it’s good that the world realizes this.”
Confidence in Obama in several countries of the Muslim world fell, according to the annual 2012 survey by Pew Research Center, ranging from 7 to 13 percent drops in Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan since he first took office. Egypt, where he had one of the highest ratings, saw the largest drop, from 42 to 29 percent confidence.
In the wake of the Arab Spring, many have called on Obama to be more consistent in engaging countries, while extremism has grown throughout North Africa, most recently Mali.
Out of the 21 countries surveyed by Pew, Pakistan – where Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed by US forces in May 2011 – expressed the lowest confidence in Obama. Over the past four years, Obama effigies have been burnt at anti-US protests and graffiti against him was spray painted on the fortified walls of the US Consulate in Karachi. Only 7 percent of Pakistanis polled for Pew said they had confidence in Obama.
Islamabad-based analyst Mosharraf Zaidi says that given the “delicate situation” with the withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan planned for 2014 and the state of flux there and in Pakistan, “the US has to be very careful not to upset that very delicate equilibrium by doing anything sudden or drastic.”
In Arab East Jerusalem, Mustafa Abu-Zahra, the owner of a shop, says that the US has done nothing for Palestinians. “We can say he cheated us,” Mr. Abu-Zahra says. He voices an oft-cited criticism: Obama promised to stop Israeli settlements in the West Bank and support Palestinian statehood, but then eased pressure on Israel and vetoed Palestinian efforts to gain statehood recognition at the United Nations.
In Israel, Obama enjoys stronger ratings despite his cool relationship with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But Obama created controversy in Israel earlier this month with reports that he said Israel “doesn’t know what its own best interests are.” Some Israelis remain skeptical that Obama has demonstrated enough support for Israel's interests, particularly as Iran's nuclear program approaches what Mr. Netanyahu has described as a "red line."
As many regions have felt shirked, Asia became a greater focus of the Obama administration's attention during his first term, when it announced its "pivot" towards the region in 2011. The US is giving the region more attention through diplomatic, military, and economic means, in what many see as a rebalancing to contain rising military power and US Cold War rival China.
Some analysts expect Obama to sustain the Asia policy, especially military cooperation with Japan in the wake of a Sino-Japanese spat over a group of East China Sea inlets. “His focus should stay in Asia, as the conflict between China and Japan will be big,” says Nathan Liu, international affairs professor at Ming Chuan University in Taiwan.
Maintaining close allies in the Asia Pacific could help the US counter Chinese influence, but so far many see little more than diplomacy at play. “It will be mainly foreign visits, hand shaking, and gesturing rather than military build-up or deployment,” says Lin Chong-pin, a strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan.
One of the great shifts that took place with Obama, differentiating his policies from that of his predecessor, was with Russia. When Obama arrived at the White House in 2009, US-Russia ties were at their weakest point since the cold war. Obama pledged to "reset" the relationship, and made a series of concessions to Moscow that culminated in the signing of the first full-scale nuclear arms reduction treaty, called New START, in two decades.
According to polls carried out by the state-run Public Opinion Foundation in Moscow, Russians viewed the US and Obama's personality more positively during the first three years of his initial term, but things soured about a year ago. Vladimir Putin engineered his return to power for a third presidential term and unresolved differences about the Middle East, missile defense, and alleged Russian human rights violations remained a stubborn wedge between the two countries.
Today relations have reached what is arguably their post-Soviet nadir, after Obama signed the Magnitsky Act into law last month, calling for tough economic and visa sanctions against Russian officials accused of serious human rights violations. Amid growing waves of acrimony, Russia responded with the Dima Yakovlev Act which, among other things, bans US citizens from adopting Russian orphans.
"Putin and Obama are so different, not just politically but psychologically as well," says Viktor Kemeniuk, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow. "I find it totally unlikely that they will be able to find a common language."
In the rest of Europe, the situation couldn’t be more different. Obama remains widely popular across the region, in many cases far more popular than national leaders. The Pew Global Attitudes poll, taken before Obama’s reelection, shows that the countries that express the most confidence in Obama are Germany, France, and Britain, in that order.
But Obama paid scant attention to Europe, continuing a “turning away” of the US from Europe that Heather Conley, the director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says began in the early part of the last decade.
And Europe’s own woes, after years struggling under debt crisis, has also turned Europe’s attention inwards. “French people aren’t talking about Obama because he is black or he is good looking,” says Karim Amellal, a professor of multiculturalism at SciencePo in Paris. “French people are worried about unemployment.”
Each time a new American leader comes into office, they “invariably say they will embark on a new policy of engagement and activity” with Latin America and Africa, says Mr. Barnes from Rice University.
But hopes are not high that that engagement will come, even in Mexico, which shares a 2,000-mile border with the United States and a drug problem – fueled by demand on the US side and violence south of the border. Social media across Mexico was ablaze in the hours after the foreign policy debates between presidential rivals Mitt Romney and Obama, as the country’s name did not come up a single time. In fact, Latin America was barely featured at all during the campaigning, aside from a few polemic statements about immigration.
But for Rogelio Huitron, a private security guard from Mexico City, that is not necessarily a bad thing. “I think we Mexicans should start focusing on what our own president does, instead of what an American president does for Mexico,” he says.
Mr. Huitron says he supports Obama’s position on immigration, after he granted deportation reprieve to some Mexicans brought illegally to the US as minors.
Elsewhere in Latin America, one relationship that could look very different is the US-Venezuelan one, as the Andean, oil-rich nation faces a possible change in power with longtime leader Hugo Chavez battling cancer. Already the two nations have reportedly moved toward rebuilding relations during President Chavez's absence from the country as he recovers from a medical treatment in Cuba.
In Africa, residents voice mixed views about Obama’s second administration. In Kenya, in Obama’s ancestral village, celebrations went on into the night in November upon his second-term victory, with goats and bulls slaughtered for feasts and schools shuttered for an unofficial holiday. But in the country at large, hopes that he’d play a lead role in African affairs have dimmed.
“Obama is still big news in Kenya, but there’s a sense that his cachet has diminished slightly,” says Mwalimu Mati, director of Mars Kenya, a governance watchdog. “The fact that he has not visited Kenya, has not come home, as people see it, has disappointed many people.”
In neighboring Somalia, however, there was great hope that recent peace gains could see President Obama’s second-term increasingly focused on supporting fragile progress in the troubled country.
On Jan. 17, the US officially recognized Somalia’s new government, forging the path for the closest diplomatic relations between the two countries in more than 20 years.
“It is Obama’s support that has helped bring us peace, now we are expecting that aid will come and bring us development,” says Fatuma Adan, a midwife in a Mogadishu hospital.
“He has only four years left. He must not forget us.”