One of the most important things to understand about global affairs is how much lies beyond any one country’s control, even for the most powerful country in the world.
Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says the limits on American power were especially apparent this year.
“American power has always had many real-world limits,” he says.
In some ways, he says, that makes President Obama’s accomplishments all the more notable.
At the end of 2011, the global landscape looks completely different from one year ago. The Iraq War has ended; Osama bin Laden is dead; and the 40-year rule of Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi is over.
“You have a world in which there is political turmoil in many countries. You have the worst American economic situation in recent memory,” Cordesman says. “You have almost partisan paralysis in the Congress that affects foreign policy as well as domestic policy.”
These challenges are one reason Obama has always emphasized a collective approach to foreign action. This president argues that it’s easier to get things done when lots of countries are pushing in the same direction.
White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes describes it as “fostering collective action on behalf of our interests.”
“In 2011, we saw the clearest demonstration of the strength of multilateral action in Libya than we’ve seen in perhaps decades,” he says, “in that you had an immediate action taken by the United States to build an international coalition to stop a potential mass atrocity on the ground.”
That effort was ultimately successful: Today, Gadhafi is gone. Rhodes says the emphasis on coalitions has paid off in other ways, too.
During foreign trips, Obama has focused on strengthening ties with Asia and with the booming economies of Latin America.
“If you look at our core alliances, there’s no question whatsoever that they’re stronger under this administration than under the previous one,” Rhodes says.
Andy Kohut agrees. His Pew Global Attitudes Project surveys international opinions about the U.S.
“The image of the United States remains highly positive in much of the world,” he says.
The Terrorism Battlefield
Yet one of Obama’s most significant foreign actions was entirely unilateral: the United States’ operation to kill the leader of al-Qaida.
White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan says bin Laden’s death is just one indication of how hawkish this president has been against terrorists.
“President Obama has been, I think, very singularly focused on doing everything possible to keep the American people safe,” he says. “That means taking the battle to al-Qaida, taking off the battlefield those that pose a serious threat to this country.”
The approach goes all the way down al-Qaida’s chain of command, which wins praise even from Bush alumni, such as former National Security adviser Steven Hadley.
“The head of operations for al-Qaida is a very risky job to have, because the average duration is about six months,” he says.
Hadley says that’s because Obama has kept many of President Bush’s most effective terrorism-fighting tools in place.
Yet To Come
As this president increased his focus on al-Qaida, he also decreased the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and ended the war in Iraq. Yet looking at the entire globe over the past year, Hadley still gives this administration a grade of “incomplete.”
“To make any kind of assessment in a period that is as dynamic and has so much transition as the current one does, we’re not going to know about ultimate success or failure for years — if not decades,” he says.
In foreign affairs, nothing is ever tidy.
The operation to kill bin Laden hurt the U.S. relationship with Pakistan. By helping to overthrow dictators in North Africa, the U.S. could be paving the way for more extremist governments there.
And some events lie entirely beyond America’s control. Europe’s economy teeters on the brink; North Korea’s leader suddenly dies.
When it comes to foreign policy and national security issues, the end of the calendar year is hardly the end of the story.