What Obama’s reelection means for world politics

It now appears that U.S. president Barack Obama has been reelected for a second term through January 2017, notwithstanding the highest unemployment rate in a generation, an economy that continues to show sluggish growth and the highest budget deficits since World War II. 

But what does it mean for world politics that Obama — and not his Republican rival, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney — has won the election?

David Rothkopf had a superb piece in Foreign Policy yesterday listing 12 catastrophes the next president — Obama or Romney — must avoid.  Those catastrophes range from another terrorist attack like the Sept. 11 attacks, a trade war with China, a real war with Iran, regional destabilization in the Middle East, escalating U.S. involvement in north Africa, a fiscal or budgetary crisis, and Japan-style long-term economic stagnation.

In addition, I would add that the U.S.-Mexico relationship is at a critical juncture with the incoming administration of Enrique Peña Nieto and the return of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI, Institutional Revolutionary Party) to power after 12 years.  That has implications for U.S. drug policy, energy policy and potential foreign development of the Mexican oil industry, border security and immigration reform, trade and other Latin American economic policy.

Sub-Saharan Africa, too, is at a critical point — economic growth is returning and China has moved aggressively to develop the continent’s resources after two decades of conflict and misery.  From Ghana to Kenya, Africa will face a flurry of elections in the months ahead.  Aside from the remaining problems in Mali and Libya, the United States has a keen interest in two additional immediate issues: (i) solidifying the role of Ethiopia as a regional partner in stabilizing the Horn of Africa following the death of longtime leader Meles Zenawi two months ago under newly installed prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn and (ii) ensuring that the newly independent South Sudan doesn’t turn into a failed state and that relations between Sudan and South Sudan over resource allocation don’t ignite a war that could easily inflame much of central Africa.

Of course, with Obama’s reelection, as soon as U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton steps down, her successor will likely be Massachusetts senator John Kerry, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice or national security advisor Thomas Donilon.

But despite the fact that Romney seemed to agree more than disagree with Obama on foreign policy in their final presidential debate back in October, there are real differences between the two.  Here are ten of the most salient consequences of what Obama’s win means for world politics — beyond giving hope to other incumbents that you can win reelection despite a subdued economy:

Obama will appoint the next Federal Reserve chair in 2014.  This might be, ultimately, the most important impact that tonight’s election will have on world politics.  Regardless of whether the current Federal Reserve chair, Ben Bernanke, decides to stay on (he’s indicated he wants to leave when his current term ends in 2014), or whether Obama renominates him, it’s certain that Bernanke or any other Obama appointee will mark the kind of continuity that global financial markets strongly prefer — it means that monetary policy will likely continue to proceed in an aggressive posture not only through 2014 but beyond (for as long as the U.S. economy remains relatively subdued and unemployment rates remain relatively high).  A Romney administration would likely have appointed an inflation hawk with a much less activist view of monetary policy, such as Glenn Hubbard, the chair of George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisors from 2001 to 2003, or John Taylor, an economics professor at Stanford University.

Bad news for Bibi.  No single world leader loses more tonight from Obama’s reelection than Israel’s prime minister.  Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly tangled with Obama over establishing ‘red lines’ with respect to Iran’s nuclear weapons program that, if crossed, would risk military action.  The Obama administration has scoffed, though it’s clear that Netanyahu would have found a much more sympathetic president in Romney, whose administration would have likely taken a much more hawkish tone on Iran.  Under Obama, we’re likely to see continued economic sanctions and quiet diplomacy to keep Iran from becoming a nuclear power (and the Obama administration may actually already be engaged in secret talks with Iran).  As Israel heads to the polls on January 22 to elect the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, it’s not clear that Netanyahu’s aggressive tone with the White House will be helpful for his own election chances.

A less aggressive tone with Russia.  Romney famously called Russia the United States’s ‘number one geopolitical foe’, but the two countries must have a respectful, if often uneasy, working relationship, not least of which for the cause of nuclear proliferation. Obama can point to his 2010 nuclear treaty in defense of his mostly conciliatory approach — and surprisingly good personal relationship with prime minister and former president Dmitri Medvedev.  Romney has also indicated he would revive the Bush administration’s missile defense program — to be based in Poland and in Czech Republic — that the Obama administration scrapped in 2009.  The Cold War’s over — and the Obama administration has no interest in returning to that era.

A counterpart to Berlin’s (and London’s) austerity.  A second Obama term will mean that the world’s largest economy remains committed to aggressive Keynesian economics (in theory), in contrast to the austerity that’s driving economic policy in the governments of UK prime minister David Cameron and German chancellor Angela Merkel, and that’s being essentially foisted on the governments of much of the rest of the eurozone by Berlin, Brussels and the reality of the eurozone’s sovereign debt crisis.  Although the election of French president François Hollande (of the leftist Parti socialiste) in May 2012 restored some balance for a more pro-growth, anti-austerity approach for Europe, and although the managing director of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde has publicly said that drastic budget cuts have been counterproductive, Obama’s presence will ensure that the U.S. treasury secretary and other officials will provide a global voice for bolder fiscal policy in Europe.

A firmer commitment to U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014.  Although both candidates have stood by the proposed 2014 deadline for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan — fully 13 years after the United States invaded Afghanistan to purge the Taliban from power — it seemed far likelier that an Obama administration would stick most faithfully to that timetable.  Either Romney or Obama, I expect, would have pushed for an American military presence in Afghanistan after 2014 (if for no other reason, as a base for further regional action in Pakistan).  But mission drift seemed more likely under a Romney administration — after all, earlier in the campaign he harshly criticized the Obama administration for even setting a timetable for withdrawal at all.

More continuity on Asia/Pacific policy.  Romney’s campaign attacked Obama for abandoning the United States’s traditional allies.  Whether it’s more missile defense in Poland, more coordination with the United Kingdom and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization over north Africa and other issues, or huddling with Israel over the Middle East, Romney would have likely returned to a more traditional Atlanticist foreign policy.  Even a country as wealthy as the United States, however, has to set priorities, and Obama’s reelection will maintain the sustained American pivot toward a more Pacificist foreign policy.  Of course, the U.S.-China relationship would have been vital to either candidate, but it’s clear that the Obama administration will be more engaged on Asia/Pacific issue.  The opening of Burma/Myanmar to political and economic liberalization has been, quite rightly, one of the top diplomatic accomplishments of the State Department under Clinton, and the Obama administration has moved aggressively to build a military presence in the Philippines and elsewhere.  The audacious Trans-Pacific Agreement, if completed, would likely become one of the two most important regional trade agreements in American history, alongside the North American Free Trade Agreement, completed in 1994.

Pentagon spending will continue to drop.  Although it seems virtually certain that the military budget will be cut in the long-term given the U.S. fiscal outlook, budget cuts are much more likely with a second Obama term.  Romney claimed during the campaign he wanted to increase military spending by around $2 trillion over the next 10 years.  But with Bob Gates leading the defense department in the first half of Obama’s first term, and with Leon Panetta — a former budget director under Bill Clinton’s presidency — as defense secretary through at least the first months of Obama’s second term, the Pentagon will remain under pressure for the next four years to find savings, if not the automatic ‘sequestration’ levels that are set to go into effect on January 1.  That, of course, will become increasingly easy with the drawdown of troops from Afghanistan.

No chance of return to ‘torture-light’ practices.  The Obama administration swiftly and clearly put an end to the ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques so controversially applied by the Bush administration on the ‘war on terror.’  But Romney has indicated that he would revisit that decision, which would make waterboarding, sensory deprivation and other forms of intelligence techniques, which critics argue violate the Geneva Conventions and international law, once again a hot-button human rights and foreign policy issue.

More ‘soft power’ leadership on climate change.  Republicans will continue to control at least the U.S. House of Representatives, so it seems unlikely that the Obama administration will advance ‘cap-and-trade’ or other climate change legislation anytime soon.  But in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy just last week, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg expressly endorsed Obama’s reelection on the cause of climate change — and Obama, despite a disappointing first term for advocates of ‘cap-and-trade,’ clearly favors more urgent action on climate change than Romney.  Indeed, there’s much Obama can do (and has done) by executive order and through the Environmental Protection Agency and otherwise through the executive branch, and in further discussion with India and China.

A better chance at normalizing Cuban relations.  It’s heretic to say it if you’re a politician in the United States (lest the anti-Castro voters in Florida attack you), but the end of the 50-year U.S. embargo on Cuba would do more symbolic good than any other policy change to develop the goodwill of Latin Americans, many of whom see Fidel Castro on much better terms than U.S. voters and the United States as fulfilling an imperialist vendetta against an impoverished nation.  Notwithstanding the problems with that narrative (first and foremost the Castro human rights record), a full opening to Cuba would certainly bring about goodwill in countries as wide-ranging as Argentina, Brazil and Chile, all of which are governed by center-left governments on substantially better relations with Cuba.  An opening would also take much of the steam out of the anti-imperialist rhetoric of leaders like Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales.  Obama has been more relaxed on Cuba policy, but hasn’t taken many steps to normalizing relations; Romney, however, would have tightened restrictions to Bush-era levels.  With Fidel Castro now on the sidelines and his brother Raúl taking some steps toward economic and political liberalization, and with Obama no longer worried about Florida’s electoral votes, this is an area where Obama could seize the initiative.

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