Despite this week’s elections, President Obama has the time and scope to do big things over the next two years. But they will have to be in the world beyond Washington. Next week’s trip to Asia would be a good place to start. In fact, it’s odd that Obama has not already devoted more time, energy and attention to foreign policy. It has been clear for a while that there is little prospect of working with the Republican Party on major domestic initiatives. This is hardly unprecedented. Administrations often devote their last few years in office to international affairs, an arena where they have latitude for unilateral action.
If Obama wants significant accomplishments in foreign policy in his last years in office, he will first need the discipline with which he began his presidency. The incremental, escalating interventionism in Syria and Iraq — were it to continue — would absorb the White House’s attention, the public’s interest and the country’s military resources. It also would not succeed, if by success we mean the triumph of pro-democratic forces in the Syrian civil war.
Obama’s biggest foreign policy initiative is powerful, intelligent and incomplete: the pivot to Asia. The greatest threat to global peace and prosperity over the next decades comes not from a band of assassins in Syria but from the rise of China and the manner in which that will reshape the geopolitics of Asia and the world. If Washington can provide balance and reassurance in Asia, it will help ensure that the continent does not become the flashpoint for a new Cold War.
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