We take the opportunity of a quiet period in US foreign policy activity to remind readers of our thoughts about the patterns that policy makers may follow in 2013.
In 2013 US foreign policy will play out in multiple, diverse venues. Many mutually competitive actors, including some outside official circles, and conflicting calculations will be involved. To help anticipate and explain American actions we offer the following "drivers" which, in our judgment, will shape the contours of decision-making for the problems that are reasonably foreseeable at this time.
1. As in his first administration, the principal focus of the second Obama administration will be on domestic rather than international issues. Personal engagement in foreign policy by Obama will be event-driven rather the result of an original initiative to achieve a foreign policy breakthrough. He will aim to reduce foreign policy exposures rather than look for opportunities to profile himself in this arena.
2. Despite his election victory, Obama will face unremitting opposition from the Republican party in Congress. He will also not be able to count on 100% support from his own party. Although Republicans are embattled, the parliamentary rules of the US legislative system allow them plenty of opportunity to delay or block the Administration's priorities. Extended trench warfare will sap the energies of both sides.
3. The center of gravity for decision-making on major foreign policy questions will continue to be in the White House rather than the State and Defense departments. The first instinct of national security officials there will be risk aversion.
4. Resources for US international activities, including those undertaken by the Pentagon, will come under increasing pressure. Departmental leaders will be forced to spend significant time justifying even their reduced budgets.
5. The shift in US priorities to the Asia-Pacific launched in 2011 will intensify and will establish itself as a permanent feature of US strategic dispositions.
6. The dilemma at the heart of US relations with China -- whether to regard that country as a partner or as an adversary -- will remain unresolved. Overall, US officials will view moves by Beijing -- militarily and diplomatically in areas like the South China Sea, North Korea, Africa and space/submarine technology, on trade within the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, on domestic human rights -- as competitive and thereby requiring a response, with a bias toward multilateral action.
7. The attitudes toward China of other regional powers – India, Japan, South Korea, ASEAN – will be important in shaping US attitudes toward them. While not acknowledging it, the US will be seeking to build out its alliances with them as potential anti-Chinese proxies.
8. Middle East issues – the trajectory of the Arab Spring, the Peace Process, the relationship with Israel, Iran, Syria – will be salient, but will excite debate within the circles of specialist experts rather than be indicative of the Administration's core priorities. Obama will not want to jeopardize his presidential legacy by risk-taking confrontation in this area. He will seek to spin out negotiations with Iran.
9. US officials will continue to view political Islamism through the lens of the "War on Terror", especially with regard to the Arab Spring, in Pakistan and peripheral regions like sub-Saharan Africa. The use of drones, albeit increasingly controversial in the US, and of special forces will continue at a high operational tempo, representing as they do the Administration's preferred mode of deniable, low footprint intervention.
10. Relations with the EU will be amicable, framed primarily through international questions like Iran, the Middle East and financial, high tech and environmental regulation, but in the right circumstances a new free trade agreement has significant backing in US commercial circles.
11. Relations with Russia will be uneasy but not systemically over-shadowing.
12. Relations with Latin America will feature mostly positive rhetoric, but otherwise will not be on the front burner. Succession crises in Venezuela and Cuba would raise the region's prominence.