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Competing Worldviews: Graphic




Two of Obama’s first official acts as president were to sign executive orders banning “enhanced interrogation techniques” that had been used on terrorism suspects and pledging to close the Guantánamo Bay military prison within one year. Almost immediately, however, Congress began passing bipartisan laws barring the transfer of Guantánamo detainees and the building of prisons on U.S. soil to house them. The administration’s response has been to reform the military commissions to try Bush-era detainees at Guantánamo and to remand new terrorism suspects to federal custody. Obama’s decision not to investigate or prosecute any Bush-era officials for their part in enhanced interrogations precluded a legal precedent determining that techniques such as waterboarding amount to torture.



U.S.-Russian relations reached a post-Cold War nadir in 2008, when Russia invaded neighboring Georgia. The Obama administration responded with a “reset” that included reconfiguring plans for a U.S. missile-defense shield in Europe into one less threatening to Moscow, followed by Obama’s visit there in 2009. The United States and Russia have since signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (known as New START). Moscow has also allowed the use of Russian territory as a resupply route for U.S. forces in Afghanistan and has, as a permanent, veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council, acceded to the strongest sanctions to date on Iran for its suspected nuclear program.



Obama promised in 2009 to redouble U.S. efforts to seek a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But after Israel pushed back against pressure to freeze settlements, the administration never fully recovered its momentum to advance peace talks. Meanwhile, the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011 put the U.S. in reactive mode, with Obama calling on Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak to step aside; letting France and Great Britain take the lead in an air operation that ousted Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi; and refusing to intervene militarily to stop the bloodletting of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.


China’s rising power represents the greatest challenge to the international system. That ascendance has been greatly accelerated by the economic downturn that Beijing sees as “made in America” and that has disproportionately affected Western nations. With the increasingly self-confident Chinese staking territorial claims to disputed islands in the South China Sea, the administration reacted with a “strategic pivot” to Asia last year. A classic case of hedging, the strategy involves an increased U.S. military presence in Asia and closer security ties with nations on China’s periphery that feel threatened, including Australia, India, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam.




The administration ended “enhanced interrogations.” But Guantánamo Bay remains open.

In effect since February 2011, the pact limits the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads in the U.S. and Russian arsenals to 1,500, a cut of about 10 percent.

Egypt is undergoing a rocky democratic transition; Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi is dead; Syria’s Bashar al-Assad still clings to power; Iran is constrained by sanctions but is still suspected of pursuing a nuclear-weapons program; Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are on life-support; U.S. troops are out of Iraq.

The relationship remains vulnerable to disruptions that include Beijing’s dismal human-rights record and routine currency manipulation, and strengthened U.S. military alliances in Asia.



Joe Biden: A former Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, the vice president is a key foreign-policy adviser and the last person in the room offering Obama his views. Biden’s penchant for blurting whatever is on his mind periodically gets him “a little bit over his skis,” as Obama recently remarked.

Hillary Rodham Clinton: The tireless secretary of State has given new meaning to “shuttle diplomacy.” She has also become a star on the diplomatic circuit, admired for toughness and compassion. Clinton does not plan to stay for a second Obama term.

Leon Panetta: The unflappable Panetta is credited for calming the CIA left roiling by Obama’s release of the “torture memos” and for managing the successful hunt for Osama bin Laden. As Defense secretary, he has assumed responsibility for winding down the Afghanistan war and downsizing the military.

This article appears in the May 16, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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