In each of the most recent two-term presidencies -- Reagan, Clinton, Bush -- the second term has featured a foreign policy significantly different from the first. One of the reasons for this is that presidents typically shuffle their national security staff between terms. In the Clinton era, the forceful Madeleine Albright replaced the difference-splitting Warren Christopher at the State Department. George W. Bush disposed of Colin Powell, whom he didn't listen to, in favor of Condoleezza Rice, whom he did, and then replaced the bellicose Donald Rumsfeld with the cautious Robert Gates at the Pentagon. Now we know that Susan Rice will not replace Hillary Clinton as Barack Obama's secretary of state, and it seems very likely that John Kerry will do so instead.
As I wrote recently, Kerry is more like Hillary Clinton in both temperament and worldview than any other even plausible candidate to replace her. And because Obama respects Kerry without being close to him, as has been true of his relationship with Clinton, foreign policy will probably continue to be formulated in the White House, and executed by the State Department. (During the second George W. Bush administration, by contrast, the center of policymaking shifted to State.) The break between Obama I and II will thus almost certainly be less drastic than Bill Clinton's change from waiting for Europe to act to seizing the mantle of leadership, or George Bush's from bombast and unilateralism to, well, slightly less bombast and unilateralism.
But administrations do change policy or mood for two other reasons: Because the world changes, and because officials learn from their mistakes. For Obama, 2013 will be different from 2009 because the Arab world is in tumult rather than paralysis, Europe is struggling to survive as a coherent entity, Iraq is yesterday's news, Afghanistan is waning rather than waxing, China's booming growth can no longer be taken for granted, and so forth. The administration has uniquely advertised its own change in posture by talking up the "pivot to Asia."
But what about second thoughts and lessons learned? The Bush administration discovered that going it alone has a high cost, and that legitimacy must be earned and not merely asserted. Of course, no one admitted that at the time; it just became obvious through action. The military, where mistakes cost lives, has institutions dedicated to scrutinizing past behavior; the civilian world is deathly afraid of admitting errors in public, and rarely does. One senior Obama administration official with whom I spoke eagerly ticked off a list of changes in the world, but then balked at the idea that he and his colleagues had misread their own environment.
But they have, if not at all as disastrously as George Bush and his team did. Obama believed, and those around him believed perhaps even more strongly, that his own oratorical and convening gifts -- the sharp break from Bush which he was prepared to make -- was itself a powerful diplomatic tool that would raise America's standing in the world and change its relations with adversaries and rivals. The policy of "engaging" even adversaries like Iran and North Korea was based both on a calculus of mutual interest and on the magic of a new moment and a new man. But it turned out that the "Obama Effect," as one senior State Department official called it, was much weaker than expected. "The idea was that there would be something reciprocal from bad actors," the official said, "and we found out very quickly that wasn't the case. We've gone back to a more traditional sort of approach."