A one-term president?

Back in 2009, right after Barack Obama took office, I published the following prediction in the Australian journal American Age:

To be blunt, anyone who expects Obama to produce a dramatic transformation in America's global position is going to be disappointed. There are three reasons why major foreign policy achievements are unlikely. First, the big issue is still the economy, and Obama is going to focus most of his time and political capital there. Success in this area is critical to the rest of his agenda and to his prospects for re-election in 2012. Second, Obama is a pragmatic centrist and his foreign policy team is made up of mainstream liberal internationalists who believe active US leadership is essential to solving most international problems. Although they will undoubtedly try to reverse the excesses of the Bush administration, this group is unlikely to undertake a fundamental rethinking of the US's global role. Third, and most important, there are no easy problems on Obama's foreign policy "to-do" list. Even if he was able to devote his full attention to these issues, it would be difficult to resolve any of them quickly.

I thought of that article and those predictions after two conversations with friends who are both experts in American politics. One is a political scientist and entrepreneur who leans toward the GOP these days, and the other is a political scientist with considerable experience in the Democratic Party establishment. My businessman friend told me bluntly: "Obama is toast. The Republicans could run a scarecrow against him and win." Interestingly, my Democratic party friend was even more outspoken in condemning the president and his advisors, and bluntly called them "a disaster." (As for my own forecasts, I think I was basically right, although Obama did not focus as much on economic matters as I expected and put too much time and capital into the health-care fight. And that is why he's in big trouble now.)

It's still early in the election season, of course, and the GOP field looks none too strong. But there's a lot of solid political science research showing that incumbent presidents have a very tough time when the economy is in the doldrums, and it's hard for me to see how Obama can get things moving again, especially when the GOP leadership has every incentive to thwart his efforts, even if it means keeping Americans out of work for another year or so.

The prospect of a one-term Obama presidency is bound to have important effects on foreign policy too. I'll bet other countries are already starting to think about the possibility, and starting to factor that into their calculations. The obvious implication is that any governments who have serious differences with the Obama administration are going to dig in their heels even more and hope for better after 2012.  It's possible that some governments who fear a more hard-line U.S. response under the GOP might be tempted to cut deals while they can, but I don't think that's very likely because they would also have to wonder if a lame-duck administration could deliver on any deal it made. The absurd length of the U.S. presidential campaign season will compound all these problems, by burning up even more of the president's time and attention over the next year or so.

This is obviously speculative and should not be overstated. But now, as in 1992, "It's the economy, stupid." And the bottom line: Expect even less from U.S. foreign policy in the year ahead. Like I said back in 2009: If you thought this administration would produce a major change in our overall global position, get used to disappointment.

Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt

What I told my APSA panel

I'm in Seattle at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, which is why I haven't been blogging. The roundtable on John Ikenberry's book Liberal Leviathan went well, I thought, and John was a good sport for allowing four critics (William Wohlforth, David Lake, Charles Kupchan, and myself) to direct a lot of good-natured critical fire at him.

I won't try to summarize the discussion (in which many good points were made), but I will say that the back and forth helped crystallize some of my own impressions of the book and its relationship to IR theory. Here I'll just make two quick points.

First, like most liberal IR theorists, John makes much of the fact that the American-led order is "rule-based." Indeed, that is how he characterizes the entire post World War II liberal order: it was a "rule-based" system that worked because the leading power (the United States) agreed to bind itself within a framework of rules and institutions. (Never mind that we mostly made up the rules, and chucked them or ignored them when they got in our way). Thus, for John the current world order is defined by its "rule-based" character; those binding norms and institutions are a central constitutive feature of the current system.

Realists acknowledge that there are rules, but we don't define the system in this way.  For starters, defining the system as "rule-based" doesn't make much sense if the leading state(s) can ignore the rules whenever they want to. Instead, realists would say the system is defined by power and by interests, with the latter heavily shaped though not absolutely determined by the former. Powerful states use rules to pursue their interests (a point that Ikenberry concedes), but the critical difference is that powerful states also ignore the rules when they get in the way, and especially in security affairs. For realists, however, it is a mistake to conceive of the entire international system as "rule-based" because any rules that states do create have little binding character and are just instrumental tools that they use mostly to overcome various coordination and credibility issues.

Second, it became clear to me in preparing my own comments that the theory advanced in Liberal Leviathan is not what social scientists would call a "positive" or "explanatory" theory. It does not in fact explain how states behave, because there are just too many ways that behavior of major powers (especially the United States) depart from the book's core arguments.  Instead, Liberal Leviathan is a normative or "prescriptive" theory: it prescribes how states should behave if they want to reap the various benefits that John believes can be achieved by maintaining and following a rule-based liberal order. There's nothing wrong with that type of argument, by the way; lots of good political science is essentially normative in character. 

Ironically, I agree with a lot of the book's specific prescriptions (though I think he's too optimistic about some of them), and I think the world would be nicer if states acted in the ways he recommends. The problem, as I said on the panel, is that the people in charge of U.S. foreign policy (both Democrats and Republicans) don't seem to agree with him. They devote a lot of lip-service to law and norms and rules and multilateralism, but when push comes to shove (which happens surprisingly often), they go their own way.

And as a last point: Despite my disagreements with Ikenberry's arguments, it is an ambitious and thoughtful book and he deserves abundant credit for putting the argument out there and letting us come after him.