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Foreign Policy

Big Tests for Obama Ahead

Nov 12 , 2012
  • Yuan Zheng

    Researcher, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

Barack Obama's re-election came on the back of a slight economic recovery. But after all the hullabaloo surrounding the election in the United States, the internal and external challenges facing the Obama administration remain grim.

Domestically, huge deficits, high unemployment and the moribund economy are the administration's biggest headaches. To solve these problems, the Obama administration will have to work with the Republicans. However, the extent to which the US is now polarized can be seen in the emergence of the two candidates' campaign promises, which reflect the different views of the Democratic and Republican parties on the role of government, public welfare, healthcare, taxes, abortion, same sex marriages and other issues.

Since the end of the Cold War, bipartisan discord in the US has become increasingly prominent. During his first term in office, Obama employed a lot of political resources and managed to push forward healthcare reform, but the Republicans are determined to block his administration's other policy initiatives. So Obama's most pressing domestic challenges are bridging the US social division, and reconciling the differences between the two parties in order to promote economic recovery.

At the same time, the Obama administration faces many foreign policy challenges. The administration's return to Asia strategy, perhaps the only policy on which there is bipartisan consensus, will advance, with Washington continuing to strengthen its relationships with its allies and continuing to promote the Trans-Pacific Partnership so as to reduce East Asian countries' dependence on the Chinese economy and market and hinder East Asia's economic integration.

The US strategy is aimed at expanding its own interests and maintaining its leading role in the region by counterbalancing China's growing influence. However, the strategy will be affected by the state of the US economy and cuts in defense spending, and it will also have to take into account China's reaction, especially as the situation in the Middle East is deteriorating.

How to handle relations with the Islamic world is a major test for the Obama administration. Dramatic political upheaval in West Asia and North Africa is changing the political landscape in the Middle East. The US, which once heralded the changes and helped bring them about, has found that the situation in the Middle East is not what it imagined or hoped for, with political instability increasing and even some radical Islamic political forces gaining power. The death of the US ambassador to Libya and constant protests in the region highlight the depth of anti-US sentiment in the Arab world. The worsening situation in Syria and the deadlock in Palestine-Israel relations point to further complications in the Middle East in the near future.

Meanwhile, the nuclear programs of Iran and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea are another test for the Obama administration, and it will need to tread very carefully to balance domestic and international pressure and find a viable solution. It needs to work to improve relations with Russia, China and other powers, to promote greater coordination and cooperation on the issues. With this in mind, it needs to consider how to adjust its policy toward Russia to restart US-Russia relations. The US needs Russia's cooperation on the Iranian nuclear issue, nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction, counter-terrorism and many other issues. Hopefully, bilateral relations will warm up with deepening economic and trade cooperation after Russia's access to the World Trade Organization.

Overall, the US policy toward China is unlikely to see any big adjustments, despite the fact that Washington's deep involvement in China's disputes with neighboring countries have made Chinese people doubt its sincerity when it says it wants the development of bilateral relationship. The US must take into consideration the feelings of China when implementing its rebalancing to Asia, otherwise Sino-US relations will face more uncertainties. China is committed to advancing relations with the US, but if the US tries to contain its development strategically, then the suspicion between the two sides will intensify and relations will suffer. That is a situation neither country wants to see. We have reason to hope and expect that after the US presidential election and the leadership transition in China both sides will expand their common interests, rationally view and control existing differences, and make further efforts to promote the benign development of Sino-US relations.

Yuan Zheng is a researcher at the Institute of American Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The article first appeared at China Daily.

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