How I would grade Obama's foreign policy to date

I see that while I was away my esteemed co-bloggers Stephen Walt and Marc Lynch have been evaluating Barack Obama's foreign policy performance -- start here, then go here and here

I'm still getting all the cotton out of my head from my Israel sojourn, but what I find striking about the debate is how Middle-East-focused it is.  Walt focuses on four key areas:  Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel/Palestine.  All important hot spots, to be sure -- but shouldn't a good realist be concerned about great power politics?  (to be fair, Walt does link to Thomas Wright's intriguing essay in The Diplomat about how the Obama administration is rethinking its China policy). 

As a global political economy person with a strong realpoliitik streak, here are the four issues I think should be given the largest weighting in any grading of Obama: 

1)  Great power politics:  This is where Obama deserves his best marks, despite some occasional rocky patches.  It's safe to say that relations with Russia have been on the mend for quite some time.  Wright is correct to point out the ups and downs with China, but the administration has reacted quite adroitly to China's renewed confidence on the regional and global stage.  U.S. relations with key Pacific Rim allies -- South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, India, and even Vietnam if you want to go that far -- have all been trending upwards.  China now has to process these events, and whether its desire to throw its weigtht around is worth the price of a balancing strategy.  This wasn't how Obama planned things to go with China, but given Beijing's behavior, I think they improvised and adapted quite well in this sphere.  GRADE:  A-

2)  Correcting imbalances in the global economy:  The last G-20 summit in Toronto demonstrated how poorly the Obama administration has done on this front.  The administration went into that summit arguing that some countries need to continue priming the fiscal pump.  The resulting communique did not reflect that assessment.  Deficit hawks have won the war of ideas here -- which would be fine if surplus countries like Germany and China balanced that approach by consuming more.  They ain't going in that direction, however.  There's been minimal progress on yuan revaluation, and real foot-dragging in the Eurozone about fixing what ails that region.  Given the high hopes Obama administration put on the G-20, this has been a thoroughly disapponting performance to date:  GRADE:  D 

3)  Trade:  Blech.  Let me repeat that -- blech.  I understand that the administration is on barren political terrain when dealing with this issue.  Still, the phrase "Obama administration's trade agenda" is pretty much a contradiction in terms at this point.  The Doha round is dead, and the only trade issue that has the support of policy principals is the National Export Initiative -- and you know what I think about that.  Unlike the other three issues, the administration hasn't even bothered to put much effort onto this one -- though the recent pledge to get the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) ratified is promising.  GRADE:  F

4)  Nuclear nonproliferation:  Even an IPE guy like myself appreciates the virtues of a world in which nuclear weapons are heavily regulated.  The Obama administration's performance in this area has been mixed.  START has been negotiated but not ratified, and the Nuclear Safety Summit seems like it was a success.  Iran and North Korea seem unbowed, but at the same time the Obama administration has reinforced the multilateral arrangements designed to contain both countries (though this is interesting).  At the same time, you can't just grade for effort at this level, and the results have been disappointing with both countries.  There is also something of a strategic mismatch between the Obama administration's nuclwar ambitions and grand strategy ambitions.  GRADE:  B-

All grades are incomplete at this stage, but looking above, I'm more than a bit troubled.  I don't see the rebalancing or trade grades impriving anytime soon.  If Obamas was one of my advisees, I'd probably have him stop by my office hours for a friendly but firm chat at this juncture.

Question to readers:  what important issues did Walt, Lynch, and I overlook ? And how would you grade Obama?

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Daniel W. Drezner

Seven thoughts about Ramallah

A few days ago my group went to Ramallah to meet with some leading figures in Fatah and the Palestinian Authority - including Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.  Here are my impressions from that seven-hour visit: 

1)  As much as the Israeli economy is booming, Ramallah is in the middle of the mother of all construction booms.  Practically every block has a crane with construction going on - and not an empt6y crane either, but one with actual work going on.  While the city is poorer than a comparable Israeli village, I should note that an awful lot of those new buildings look like the Palestinian version of McMansions. 

2)  For all the talk about Fatah being a secular movement, most of the people we saw outside of the Palestinian Authority (PA) buildings looked a bit more religious.  Except for those women working for the PA, every woman I saw on the street was wearing the hijab

3)  The one Palestinian all of our Israeli interlocutors praised was Fayyad, so it was quite interesting to meet him.  He's not a Fatah member, and has all the charisma of an economist.  That said, he has one thing that few people on either side possessed - a healthy dollop of optimism.  Fayyad has been hard at work trying to build the Palestinian state from the ground up, focusing on both the mundane (garbage collection) and the not-so-mundane (security).  The general consensus is that the West Bank is far safer and far better run than it was five years ago.  Fayyad's goal seems to be to get the Israelis to realize that the Palestinians are competent at statebuilding.  So far, the Israelis appear to concede that progress has been made.  That said, both the PA and the Israelis fear a reversal if further progress is not made during the peace talks. 

4)  There is a wide disagreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians about the explanation behind the disappearance of terrorist attacks emanating from the West Bank - and, more generally, the lack of violence during Operation Cast Lead or even the recent flotilla incident.  The Israelis credit Operation Defensive Shield, the security barrier, and the Israeli Defense Forces (a joke repeated by many Israelis we met was that Abu Mazen has the best security force in the word - the IDF).  PA officials credited improved Palestinian security forces and the conscious self-restraint of the Palestinian people.  One PA official claimed - and an former Israeli official confirmed - that 25,000 Palestinians cross the barrier undetected for economic reasons, and should the PA want to cause trouble, the barrier would be only a minor impediment.  This official later claimed that the PA could launch missiles onto Tel Aviv if they so decided. 

5)  There is also a wide divergence of preferences about the status quo.  As noted previously, the Israelis are pretty happy.  Fatah is less happy - they feel like they're doing the dirty work to enhance Israeli security without realizing any benefits in terms of peace negotiations.  They worry that unless progress is made on final status negotiation soon, they will lose power to Hamas.  I have every confidence that fair-minded FP readers can evaluate these claims. 

6)    About the border crossing and the security barrier.  Getting into Ramallah was pretty easy - the Israelis don't care who goes through, and the PA had no checkpoints.  Once inside, it's impossible to look at the concrete barrier and not think of the Berlin Wall.  Same concrete, same distribution of graffiti (no graffiti on the Israeli side, plenty on the Palestinian) and similar message content (though an awful lot of it was in English, which I found convenient ).  Getting back into Israel was much more onerous.  The lines were long, and the wait was interminable.  The Palestinians were pretty unfazed by the wait - for them, this was standard operating procedure.  On the other hand, Dalia Rabin, the head of the Rabin Institute and daughter of the late prime minister, had to be detained because she couldn't walk through the metal detector for health reasons. 

7)  I have something very controversial to say, so let's just get this out in the open:  the hummus at the Mirador Hotel in Ramallah is better than the hummus at the King David in Jerusalem  [Way to inflame tensions!!-ed.  I call them as I see them.]

UPDATE:  Yes, I meant seven thoughts, not six.  My counting skills are the first thing to go when I'm jet-lagged.