Where is Barack Obama’s foreign policy headed? In answering, one must accept a measure of humility. Predicting American policy makes more fools than sages. That goes double for foreign policy, as analysts must anticipate not only the actions of the United States but of foreign provocateurs as well.
In the case of Barack Obama, there is an additional caveat: the high-profile concerns that have monopolized his efforts abroad are seen by the president himself as little more than Bush-era loose ends, not the defining transactions of his own foreign policy. All new presidents encounter irritating constraints on their aspirations, but Obama is more irritated than most at having to endure any sense of continuity with his predecessor. His criticism of Bush continues unabated even as he fares no better in the same stubborn terrain.
Obama is not looking to build his foreign-policy legacy on top of disputes that predate his arrival. He is working to move past these, toward the day when he can implement his own foreign policy and national-security agendas. Accordingly, the best way to predict Obama’s foreign policy in the next three years lies not in examining how he deals with the accumulated baggage of Iraq, Afghanistan, Middle East peace, and the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs. Important as those are, they constitute what Obama has had to confront. We should ask instead what he will attempt to establish once he has become less encumbered by the inherited issues. Here, the record shows three critical characteristics.