Second-term U.S. presidents often turn to foreign affairs because they are dogged by political obstacles domestically, where their lame-duck status inevitably drains their political muscle. So they turn to the relative freedom-of-action internationally.
President Obama faces a different milieu -- both at home and abroad.
The election made it clear that the majority of Americans want him (and the Congress) to focus on rebuilding at home, energizing the slow recovery, resolving the budget deficit and accumulated debt with an over-all plan that deals with the structural problems of unsustainable growth in entitlement programs and the economic warps induced by the special-interest-goody-laden tax code.
It also emphasized that the American public is more than weary of trillion-dollar wars with unclear outcomes that divert resources, energy and focus from what needs to be done at home.
So while it is no surprise that the 2012 election was even less about foreign policy than many, it does not mean that there are not great challenges abroad that require American attention and leadership from its president.
To the extent that foreign policy played even a bit part in the election, the Obama victory vindicated his fundamental stance: America must be strong at home and not overextended abroad if it is to continue to play a leadership role. Echoing realists from at least Eisenhower's presidency, to be successful, the U.S. must orchestrate other key players in support of common aims - regardless of American military superiority. And it must also understand that events often overtake policies and almost always must be dealt with messily rather than “controlled.”
With that realist framework in mind, what might be expected internationally in the next four years?
A leadership presence internationally requires strength at home. So task one for domestic and international affairs is a credible program to reduce deficits and make progress toward balanced federal budgets, as well as paying down the accumulated debt.
But with or without such a grand bargain, the administration will no doubt continue its emphasis on multi-faceted politico-diplomatic activity, coupled with a willingness to use force in two very different circumstances: unilaterally, with special forces, drones, cyber and other high-tech weaponry, and multilaterally when a coalition of the willing can be mobilized for clearly limited aims, as in Libya.
This involves a more precise definition of U.S. interests than the expansive rhetoric of extending freedom and liberty as “the hope of the earth,” as Gov. Romney exhorted during the campaign.
The principles underlying this framework were emphasized by the president when he released the January 2012 Strategic Defense Guidance: security for ourselves, allies and partners; “prosperity that flows from an open and free international economic system;” “a just and sustainable international order where the rights and responsibilities of nations and peoples are upheld, especially the fundamental rights of every human being.”
While noting that all aspects of American power need to be available for deployment, the president highlighted investment in “intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; counterterrorism; countering weapons of mass destruction; … and prevailing in all domains, including cyber.”
No doubt these principles and objectives will guide the administration’s foreign policy actions over the next four years.