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Obama’s Foreign Policy Challenges

Chen Jimin, Assistant Research Fellow, CPC Party School
April 19, 2013
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In its second term, the Obama administration will face predictable and unpredictable foreign policy challenges, which are significant for the future of the United States. 

First, Obama must deal with the challenges of the international community in which power has become increasingly decentralized. Currently, U.S. decision-makers and scholars have formed a consensus that the distribution of international power increasingly decentralized, which is not only reflected in the rapid rise of emerging countries, but also in the expansion of various non-state actors, including terrorist groups, especially in Africa. The crisis in Mali and the Algerian hostage incident have reminded the international community that the main frontier against terrorism in the future may have turned from Central Asia to Africa. If this is indeed the case, the future of the international security situation will face greater challenges. Additionally, power decentralization is also reflected in the changes of the composition of some country's internal powers, such as Egypt. Compared with the former Mubarak regime, foreign policy under Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has an obvious anti-American and Anti-Israeli feature. The power structure of the international community will have profound implications for the geopolitical situation and bring uncertain effects to U.S. interests in the region. 

Second, the Obama administration will be forced to reconcile how to maintain a strong and unified Western world. After World War II, the United States established a powerful Western world and kept its unity by providing economic support, and security guarantees to its allies. However, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the common imminent security threat no longer exists. Now, Europe, Japan and other traditional allies are showing greater separation tendencies. Due to the impact of the financial crisis in 2008, Europe plunged into the debt crisis, which is still difficult to resolve. Thus, European countries will make strengthening their internal policy coordination and boosting confidence in the economic recovery its primary task. At the same time, facing a weak economy and high unemployment rate, the United States had no choice but to slash spending, including military spending. In this context, the United States has actively sought out its European allies, urging them to assume more international responsibilities. Thus, the strategic will of the United States and its European allies have contradictions. This situation has weakened the effects of the United States on the integration of the European forces. Japan, a key U.S. ally in the Asia-Pacific, also suffered from poor economic performance. In order to regain power, political forces in Japan have resorted to nationalism, especially through territorial disputes over the Diaoyu Islands with China, resulting in high-tension relationships with neighboring countries. The overheated tension of Asian security situation does not meet the interests of the United States. Thus, one of the toughest challenges for the Obama administration has become how to unite U.S. allies, how to manage the differences between Japan and its neighbors, and how to maintain a powerful Western world. 

Third, the Obama administration must ensure the authority of international institutions and build new international norms. Many scholars will not deny that the international institutional system has an important role in the maintenance of U.S. hegemony. Current international mechanisms, however, still play vital functions, but also face significant challenges. On the one hand, these challenges are partly because some countries ignore and undermine the existing international mechanisms, such as nuclear weapons development programs by Iran and North Korea. On the other, the selective use and even violations of the international system by the U.S. pose a threat to the authority of international institutions. Additionally, establishing new international norms to deal with global problems is one of the urgent issues facing the Obama administration. 

Fourth, the Obama administration must deal with the challenges associated with the rise of China and other emerging countries. Challenges facing the U.S. from the rise of emerging countries are from more than just China. Today, when it comes to traditional security challenges facing the United States, many scholars and politicians in the United States intentionally or unintentionally take China for granted, instead treating China as a strategic adversary or even enemy. It is not beneficial for the United States to hold this assumption. As a matter of fact, China is not the only or the biggest competitor for the United States. For example, the disparity in power between China and the United States is still huge. China's per capita GDP is still far behind the United States’. In 2011, China's per capita income was $5,445 or approximately 11.3% of the per capita income of the United States. Furthermore, there is no obvious confrontation in strategic intentions between China and the United States. 

For China, it is main strategic goal is the building of a moderately prosperous society by 2020. To this end, China's efforts must be put on addressing various challenges caused by the domestic development. Thus, China's strategic intention is inward-looking. In contrast, since the end of Cold War, the U.S. goal has always been to maintain the leading position in the complex and volatile international environment, whose strategic intention is outward-looking. More importantly, a post-American world will not be due to the rise of China, but the massive rise of the non-Western world. Thus, as the challenges the United States faces are comprehensive and clustered, so is the solution. 

Chen Jimin, Ph.D, is an Assistant Research Fellow for the Institute for International and Strategic Studies at the Party School of Central Committee of C.P.C.

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