First 100 Days: Obama’s foreign policy challenges

February 17, 2009

Willis Sparks— Willis Sparks is a Global Macro analyst at the political risk consulting firm Eurasia Group. The views expressed are his own. —

Few things in life amused my dad more than a good karate movie. I once asked what he found so funny about Bruce Lee’s jaw-dropping display of poise and power. “Nice of the bad guys to attack him one at a time,” he said. In the real world, threats don’t arrive single-file, like jets lining up for takeoff.

President Barack Obama’s toughest foreign-policy challenge will be in managing the sheer number of complex problems he’s inherited and their refusal to arrive in orderly fashion. In addition, the still-metastasizing global financial crisis will exacerbate several of these problems, by depriving a number of governments of the funding they need to maintain social stability and to meet internal and external threats to their security.


There is clearly a risk of collision at the intersection of Afghanistan and Pakistan, both of them plagued with floundering elected governments and deteriorating security environments. In Afghanistan, once Obama keeps his promise to provide thousands more U.S. troops, he must decide whether his team can afford to work around President Hamid Karzai (who may win reelection in August) and more directly engage tribal leaders and willing members of the Taliban to restore stability.

But Afghanistan’s security continues to depend on the ability of U.S. forces to stem the flow of militants and supplies into the country from tribal areas in Pakistan. Aware that Pakistan’s armed forces are neither reliably willing nor able to help, the Obama team must find a way to neutralize Pakistani militants without arousing broad public anger across the country and destabilizing its cash-strapped government.


The new president also inherits a central role in the international conflict over Iran’s nuclear program. Publicly committed to warnings that a nuclear Iran is “unacceptable,” some within the Obama team say the steep recent drop in oil prices fueled by the financial crisis will further hobble Iran’s already unsteady economy, adding bite to U.S. sanctions and raising hopes that direct engagement might bear fruit.

But however sharp the sticks or sweet the carrots, a broad consensus has developed within Iran in favor of the nuclear program, one that has so far proven immune to external pressure. Obama will eventually face a tough choice: He can accept the need for military action against Iranian nuclear sites or tacitly accept that no one can prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power.


Across the border in Iraq, recent local election results generally bolstered moderates at the expense of radicals. But the inability of Iraqi lawmakers to forge durable compromises on the equitable distribution of political power and oil revenue, on the disputed status of energy-rich Kirkuk, and on the balance of power between federal and provincial governments leave Obama in a tough spot. He can hold to campaign promises of a near-term withdrawal of all U.S. combat troops or accept the political fallout that comes with approving Pentagon requests for a go-slow approach meant to protect recent security gains.


There are plenty more potential flashpoints, but the most important international relationships Obama must cultivate are those with newly insecure Russia and increasingly self-confident China. Some within the Kremlin fear that U.S. influence in Russia’s neighborhood threatens the country’s long-term security, even as the global recession thins its (still considerable) financial reserves. A series of recent confrontations—over Kosovo, U.S. missile defense systems in Central Europe, Russia’s war with Georgia—have allowed Russian officials to capitalize on domestic anti-American sentiment and have pushed U.S. policymakers in search of a new approach.

But willingness to “press the reset button,” as Vice President Biden recently suggested, might breed misunderstanding. If Russians believe this signals that Obama will turn a blind eye toward Kremlin bullying at home or abroad, a luxury the new U.S. president cannot afford, his administration may have to reboot again—and sooner rather than later.


The Bush administration’s first international test came in April 2001, when a U.S. spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet, killing the Chinese pilot and provoking a diplomatic standoff over detention of the U.S. flight crew. But China has become a status-quo power in recent years, as the leadership’s reliance on strong growth to bolster its domestic political capital has given Beijing a growing stake in global stability. Over time, the Bush team helped cultivate steady and predictable bilateral ties with China by focusing negotiations on subjects its leaders are willing to talk about—currency conflicts rather than human rights.

Obama says he means to broaden the conversation—a shift that will require plenty of patience on both sides. The stakes are high, particularly as the global financial crisis provokes anxiety in both capitals. This is the world’s most important bilateral relationship. Investing it with predictability and mutual trust will take considerable time and care.

So far, the new president has been lucky. He’s been able to devote time and energy to the stimulus package and financial rescue plan that he hopes will help refloat the U.S. economy. But the administration should recognize that this same financial crisis will add to the complexity of the foreign-policy challenges it faces—challenges that won’t come one at a time.


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What About the Root of all evils in the Middle East? Israel vs. the Palestinian people, land, and nation. By not talking about it, doesn’t mean it will go away.

If we support the right of all people to have their freedom, why not apply this lofty goal to the Palestinian people?

If we want people to start like us as Americans again and buy our products and services, we must appeal to them as honest and credible nation, by reversing what the stupid and brutal Bush’s dogmas have brought upon our nation. One thing that financial crises analysts omitted either on purpose or of ignorance that, the Bush and company scared the hill out of foreign investors by installing the draconian Patriot act on the financial sector, the fall of the dollar was the direct result of oil rich nations divesting and exiting from the Bush belligerent system. The lack of liquidity in the market is because the dollars were not deposited back in the American banking system, either the money is leaving our shore to Israeli government owned banking systems (curtsey of the financial swindlers) or to South Asian banks. As a president of the United States Bush describing our oil suppliers as enemies time and time again, I guess it would not take a genius to figure that this guy is a wacko and a threat to their wealth, so the safest way is to withdraw their nations’ wealth from the American system.
Further more, American Taxpayers need answer to what happened to the 370 billion dollars that Bush and his cronies had to have just two months before his disgraceful departure finally took place? IS ANY BUDY HOME?!!!

Posted by Dan | Report as abusive

The 100 days or the 100 hours has led the US President into a deep deep depression rather than the recession as the banking and industrial Empires began to shrink.His foreign policies atarted into a low profile from Japan,South Korea and in China.Let us forget of what is in future balance days.Only depression awaits on the agenda for Obama to dream of foreign lands in the White House.Let him spend his first 100 days to straighten up his own land

Posted by Peter Vaz | Report as abusive

One of the most important foreign policy challenges facing the Obama administration is the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. US may invade countries, install friendly governments in Muslim nations or give massive socioeconomic aid, terrorism will never be controlled unless this conflict is resolved justly. This is the conflict that feeds extremism in most of the Muslim countries. When you go to these countries pictures of Made in American planes and bombs killing the Palestinians are displayed everywhere.

Posted by Faruk | Report as abusive

I agree that leaving out the Palestinian/Israeli conflict was a gross error. In fact, the whole article read like a Into to Foreign Affairs class with a closing paragraph tacked on. Maybe the author had to come up with 2500 words in a hurry, and cut and pasted something in quickly, but carelessly.

Posted by Fillybuster | Report as abusive

One of the major reasons for US being hated in many parts of the world is the fact that it seems to decide or at least arbitrate what is good for people of various countries. The unfairness of the self-appointed arbitrator is the major reason for the anti-american feeling. Obama would be well advised to put UN as the body that takes the decisions. It may mean that USA would have to abide by UN even if the decision is not palatable to USA. Obama is yet to stress that UN is above USA. If he does that, a majority of the problems would resolve itself as the basis for anti-american feeling would disappear.

Posted by V.B.Ramani | Report as abusive

U.S foreign policy has been a dismal failure for the past 30 years, with the exception of helping solving the bosnia conflict we have failed in every aspect of foregin policy. we have supported the wrong leaders and the wrong countries. why do we support saudia arabia and egypt over iran? iran does not export religious extremist the way egypt and sauida arabia do? we can solve half our problems in the middle east from afghanistan and pakistan to iraq by working with the iranians.we need to tell the israelis and palestinians to come to a real peace agreement instead of this nonsese that we have been a part of for the past 50 years, while breast feeding izrael and supporting its every crime. they are no benefit to us, infact they are a burden on us and a big reason for anti-americanisim around the world. the write of this article also failed to deal with issues in latin america, mainly mexico which becoming more dangerous every day, and also africa. the fact that those were completey ignored shows the short sightedness of the article.

Posted by sidney | Report as abusive

OHHH! So now He understands what it’s like to “walk in Bush’s shoes” for a couple of weeks! What a difference 36 days make!!!!

Posted by sylvia | Report as abusive

Mr Sparks are you aware the exsiting Palestinian / Israeli Conflict?

Posted by Bob | Report as abusive