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September 18, 2020
EDITORIAL

Obama II: The big international challenge

Sunday, in a small reunion, and yesterday in a lavish rally at Washington, President Barack Obama was sworn in and started his second term of office at the White House. Even though a big theoretic debate over the systemic decline of this superpower exists currently – and not only in the USA – it becomes obvious that today it is the most powerful state on the planet. The presumed erosion of its systemic hegemony either has not consumed itself enough, or has not even started. And its leader undoubtedly is the most powerful person of the world. So, the political actions decided by Obama, the dossiers he will try to solve in foreign politics, the initiatives he will take in the international arena, the regions of the planet he will neglect or favour over the next four years will have a fundamental impact on the global policy agenda of this interval.

There is no doubt that Obama will try to continue (or finalise) what he already began in his first mandate, and how he will achieve this represents his legacy to his successors at the White House. Some of the big changes operated by Barack Obama in foreign politics will certainly be continued. The first – and most important – is the fundamental orientation of the US grand strategy. The current debate in the USA is whether this grand strategy will continue to be a deep engagement abroad or, on the contrary, a selective engagement, what some analysts call retrenchment. In other words, either continuing a dynamic interventionism in the foreign arena and basing the approach of global policies on the principle – specific to the era of Pax Americana – or another way of intervention abroad, in measure to secure the American leadership, selectively and at smaller costs, based on a network of global alliances relying on allied regional powers. If the former way, specific to the “unipolar moment,” determined a huge consumption of resources, reflected in the present public debt of the USA and meant wars like, recently, those of Iraq or Afghanistan, as well as punctual interventions – “drone wars”- in other parts of the world (Yemen, Pakistan etc.), the latter tries to avoid the setbacks of the former. And the current economic-financial situation of the USA justifies such a debate, although it has not reached a solution agreed by both sides yet. To prove that this is the way things go, there are still voices from the Republic Party that demand – for instance – a military intervention in Syria or using the military option in Iran. Known under the rather journalistic name of ‘leading from behind,’ hints to the White House’s preference for the ‘selective engagement’ approach have appeared since the first term of Obama. This has become evident not only in the case of Libya, in 2011, when the French-British-NATO action was supported by the unparalleled military capabilities of the USA in order to be successful, but also by the recent – still going on – episode of “the global war against terrorism” in Mali, which hints to the same symptoms of American behaviour abroad.The observers of the American political establishment carefully monitored how Obama chose his close collaborators for the strategic office in the government or in this sector:  State Secretary and Secretary of Defense. For both offices, Obama chose two veterans of the Vietnam war, J. Kerry and C. Hagel, known for their prudent approach of foreign interventionism. Despite fierce press campaigns against these nominations, especially against the new chief of the Pentagon, Obama stuck to his choices, which is a hint that the ‘selective engagement’ will be the grand strategy line in the next four years. This will not mean a new isolationism, or a withdrawal of the USA from world affairs, as some fear. A recent column run by ‘The Washington Post’ overtly affirmed that “The world needn’t worry about the assertiveness of U.S. power under Obama, Kerry and Hagel,” designating these three politicians as “the champions of retrenchment.”This retrenchment will not signify a lack of American leadership in global affairs, which is demonstrated by other strategic lines assumed by Barack Obama during his first term. Among these, the ‘Asia pivot’ has the highest importance, as it determines the geopolitical positioning of the USA this century, somehow delayed by the interlude represented by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. In the coming decades, the Pacific will be the main arena of global affairs, and the USA is already concentrating its forces and efforts here, where the exponential growth of China during the last decades placed it in the position of United States’ rival to systemic hegemony. This retrenchment also cannot mean allowing the Iranian dossier to deviate into an erratic behaviour, especially as Obama reiterated that the military option is still possible, without Tehran’s negotiated abandoning of nuclear weapons. And the ‘reset’ with Russia, in spite of road incidents and setbacks, cannot leave the strategic global nuclear option prey to hazard, as only a new START negotiation can secure it. Of particular importance for the USA remains the transatlantic relation, – as recently demonstrated by the position expressed by Washington towards London’s temptation to leave the European Union through the appeal to a referendum possibly held in 2015. The signal sent to London that “the USA needs England in the EU” actually is a signal sent to the European alliance and NATO about the continuity of the American interest for strengthening it.Obama’s second mandate will thus bring a consolidation of the own foreign policy doctrine, which does not rule out the interventionism abroad to the benefit of the American global management, but it will be enforced cautiously, in a multilateral framework based on global partnerships, relying on allies and partners that will share the costs of a peaceful global solution, open to cooperation and predictability.Naturally, if this is a new grand strategy of the USA, one cannot rule out unforeseen events, from regional conflicts with high expansion potential – such as the territorial competitions in the South China Sea – or a sudden tension surge in the Korean Peninsula, to the impact of accelerated global heating or the collapse of the Middle East peace edifice established at Camp David, or an implosion of Afghanistan after the retreat of multinational forces in 2014, but even with such unforeseen incidents the ‘Obama doctrine’ will doubtlessly survive, because it suits the present global complexity, where not even the sole superpower can afford to waste the management of a unipolar world.

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