Emerging from the bubble of a domestically focused campaign, Obama will find a world that did not stand still for American politics. And given that his foreign-policy platform focused on little more than withdrawing from Afghanistan and “nation-building here at home,” he won’t have a mandate in this arena.
The Arab Spring began a civil war in Syria that has claimed more than 30,000 lives. During the presidential campaign, the Obama administration essentially held the escalating conflict at arm’s length while the rebels fighting the despotic President Bashar al-Assad became more radicalized, with militant Islamists gravitating to the fight and threatening to turn Syria into a breeding ground for terrorism. So Syria’s neighbors, especially Israel, are especially worried about who will control Assad’s chemical-weapons stockpile. Syria’s sectarian and ethnic violence—Sunni versus Shiite, Kurd versus Arab—has already spilled into Lebanon and Turkey, and it now threatens Iraq. Perhaps most important, key U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Gulf States, and especially Turkey are questioning U.S. leadership. The Obama administration’s assertive efforts this week to unify the Syrian opposition amounts to an admission that the status quo in Syria is unsustainable.
Next year could also prove decisive in the looming confrontation over Iran’s suspected nuclear-weapons program. During the election, Obama went further than any predecessor in taking the defensive option—“containment” of a nuclear-armed Iran—off the table, suggesting that his administration would use preemptive military force rather than allow Iran to acquire the bomb. That was not enough for hawkish Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, who insists that the window for sanctions to deter Iran is closing. His recent U.N. speech warned that by next summer, Iran’s nuclear-weapons program will cross a “red line” beyond which Israel has long threatened to use military force, with or without U.S. participation.
As the world’s superpower, the United States has for decades tried to integrate China into the international order. But a host of factors have recently complicated that task. Both Obama and Romney staked out tough positions on trade with China—an election-season standby that nevertheless annoyed Beijing officials, who hold more than $1 trillion in U.S. debt. China is also in the midst of a once-a-decade leadership transition. Xi Jinping, the nation’s next general secretary, faces destabilizing challenges, from a slowing economy to growing public demand for political reform. Meanwhile, Obama’s strategic “pivot” to Asia has incensed Chinese military leaders, who view it as a form of containment. China has also adopted a belligerent posture toward its claims on disputed islands in the South and East Chinese seas, suggesting that military officers may be taking advantage of the leadership transition to increase their influence.
Trans-Atlantic relations, too, could vex Obama. Although the White House can do little more than dispense advice, a debt default by a eurozone country could plunge the global economy into recession. On the military front, indebted NATO allies continue to cut defense spending to the bone, even after the 2011 Libyan air operation exposed significant shortfalls in their military capabilities. A withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan scheduled for the end of 2014 could become another source of alliance division if, as many experts fear, the Afghan government and security forces cannot take control of their country. Finally, the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia, withdrawal of most forward-deployed troops from Germany, and decision not to lead NATO’s Libya operation has some allies questioning the U.S. commitment to the alliance.