President Barack Obama has another four years in office and a unique opportunity to establish a lasting legacy for himself and the United States. Deficits and national debt, along with other bread-and-butter issues like unemployment, trade imbalances, immigration, and education will dictate Obama’s major near-term priorities.
As a Nobel Peace laureate, Obama will eventually want to be remembered for a grand move on the world stage. However, Obama, as a student of presidential history, will be keenly aware that trying to accomplish too much could lead to disaster. President Bill Clinton’s second term was marked by a major plan to bring about a long-lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Clinton’s Middle East peace plans were dashed by a last-minute snag between Israeli Prime Minister Ehid Barak and Palestinian President Yasir Arafat. Clinton’s dream of being the president who brought about a Middle East peace agreement was in ruins and Clinton’s second term was to be known more for personal scandal than grand diplomacy.
Considering the facts that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu made no secret of his support for failed Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and that Obama and Netanyahu dislike one another, Obama will avoid entanglement in the Arab-Israeli morass.
As the first African-American president, some observers feel that Obama will try to establish a lasting legacy in Africa. Political instability and economic turmoil makes Africa an unattractive continent on which Obama would want to expend his diplomatic capital.
Although U.S.-Latin American relations could stand some major improvements, Obama has very little experience dealing with Latin America, notwithstanding he garnered massive support from Hispanic voters in 2012, including being the first Democratic presidential candidate to receive a majority of the Cuban-American vote, a bloc that traditionally voted Republican. Obama may attempt to use his new-found support in the Cuban-American community to seek a rapprochement with Cuba that will permit more unfettered travel between the Cuban community in Florida and Cuba. The loosening of America’s over fifty-year old sanctions against Cuba may also be modified or even scrapped under Obama II.
Obama’s military disengagement from Afghanistan will entail some artful diplomacy with Pakistan and maybe even the moderate factions of the Taliban. However, we should not expect Obama to involve himself personally in the Afghanistan-Pakistan quagmire. There may be major policy issues on the continued use of drones in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and other countries and their indiscriminate killing of civilians.
Europe’s financial problems will be left for Europe, particularly German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to handle. However, the continuation of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner in his position is doubtful and a new Secretary may decide to become more engaged in Europe’s financial woes. Obama II may also have to deal with the ramifications of three new independent nations in Western Europe: Scotland, Flanders, and Catalonia. Obama’s Defense and State Departments will be keen to ensure that splits within three U.S. NATO allies have little effect on the overall functioning of the transatlantic military pact.
Obama, as a native of Hawaii and a boyhood resident of Indonesia, can be expected to launch a major initiative toward the Asia-Pacific region. Although his first term Secretary of State Hillary Clinton engaged in saber-rattling speeches on China’s periphery, Obama may turn America’s «pivot to Asia» policy from a military build-up in Australia, the highly-contested South China Sea, South Korea, and Japan, to a more cooperative relationship with China under the leadership of a younger Politburo. China’s new president, Xi Jinping, is the son of a Chinese Communist reformer, Xi Zhongxun and was mentored by reformist Chinese Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang. A «change» president like Obama will find a «change» advocate in President Xi.
The new Chinese Prime Minister, Li Keqiang, who is fluent in English, is also known as a reformer. His friends at Peking University were the pro-democracy demonstrators whose protests were crushed in the military crackdown on Tiananmen Square. In fact, the new Chinese Communist Party Politburo will be composed primarily of young reformers who will be keen to placate growing demands from China’s growing middle class to clean up corruption and pollution and provide social services.
However, Obama may try to stake his legacy on establishing a trans-Pacific free trade area, something that will result in heavy criticism from American labor unions and human rights advocates. Such a move for Obama will run the risk of a political disaster that will mar Obama’s second term.
Obama will have to carefully avoid being drawn into Pentagon plans to establish a NATO-like military pact in the Asia-Pacific to confront China and Russia. If Senator John Kerry becomes the new Secretary of State, his wife, Teresa Heinz-Kerry, will have to be cautioned about her philanthropic support for the Dalai Lama’s exiled government in Dharamsala, India. The one area where China will not tolerate interference is independence provocation in Tibet, Taiwan, and Inner Mongolia.
Obama II may have to face a major Asian crisis if there is political instability in nuclear power North Korea. Obama will have to balance the demands of the Pentagon with the diplomatic requirements of the State Department. Barring a sudden and violent upheaval in Pyongyang, Obama may opt to restore the Clinton administration dialogue between North Korea and the United States that was thrown overboard by the Bush administration.
Obama II will be under pressure by militarist elements in Japan and South Korea to strengthen American military ties with both nations. However, given the maritime boundary disputes involving Japan, South Korea, China, and Taiwan, Washington runs the risk of alienating China and it is seen as tilting toward Tokyo or Seoul. When it comes to the U.S. military and Pentagon planners, «business as usual» in Asia will be one area that will pose a challenge to Obama if he opts for a change in U.S. Asian policy. Mrs. Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta have tried to re-militarize U.S. policy in Asia with such phraseology as the «Asia Pivot» and «Asia Rebalance» but the intent is to establish a cordon sanitaire around China’s maritime and land borders. President Xi, who has strong backing from the Chinese military, will come under pressure to respond strongly to an American military buildup around China. China’s conservatives, with strong ties to hardliners in the Chinese Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army, will maintain a strong presence in China’s Politburo. If Obama continues with a military-led pivot to Asia, Beijing’s hardliners will step up to meet the threat, whether it is from America directly or American surrogates like Japan, South Korea, or the Philippines…
President Obama has expressed an interest in establishing his presidential museum and library in his native Hawaii, likely at the campus of the University of Hawaii in Manoa that once had enrolled as students his mother, Kenyan father, and Indonesian step-father. Obama, as a former president and senior statesman, would rather be known as the president who ushered forth a lasting Pax Pacifica during his second term rather than the president who plunged Asia into a cold or even hot war.
Obama will have to use his personal diplomacy skills to ensure Pax Pacifica is his legacy on an island where monuments of Pacific wars, like the sunken battleship Arizona in Pearl Harbor, are all too common.