January 21, 2013 7:06 pm

Obama’s second term: The world awaits

Barack Obama’s election in 2008 was greeted by many countries with relief and hope after the rancour of the Bush years. Now, on the day of the president’s second inauguration, the rest of the world has differing views of the president’s record and what he needs to do over the next four years.

The Middle East

America might not be a popular superpower in the Middle East, but when it comes to resolving the region’s problems it is the one everyone looks to.

The demands on the US, however, are often conflicting and the expectations much higher than the delivery. As happened with his predecessors, the pressure is already mounting on President Obama to revive the first term’s early attempts at Middle East peace, with many Arab leaders (and Europeans too) lobbying for an American initiative that raises the pressure on Israel and offers perhaps the last chance for the creation of a viable Palestinian state.

Israel’s focus, however, will continue to be on Iran, and it, in turn, will maintain the pressure on the Obama administration to take a harder line and give more credence to a military option, which Israelis could yet take on their own. For America’s Gulf allies, the priority will be Syria, the removal of whose regime is seen as a way of weakening Iran. Although they rarely say so publicly, Arab Gulf states believe Washington has taken a back seat in the Syrian conflict, and should be leading the international effort to oust Bashar al-Assad.


Iran and the global economy are two areas where European Union governments are particularly keen for Mr Obama to display skilful and effective leadership in his second term.

The Europeans welcome Mr Obama’s wariness about using force to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons and strongly support his efforts to intensify pressure on Iran’s leaders through economic sanctions. “Most EU governments have long worried that attacking Iran would destabilise the region,” says Clara Marina O’Donnell of the Centre for European Reform think-tank in London.

The Europeans would like to see the Obama administration and Congress put in place a sound framework for controlling US public debt and budget deficits. Partly, this is because the greater America’s fiscal challenges, the more pressure Europe comes under to increase its defence budgets and financial support for strategically important countries such as Egypt.

Responsible US fiscal policies would also help to stabilise the world economy, assisting the eurozone’s efforts to emerge from crisis.

Although the Europeans understand the logic behind Mr Obama’s diplomatic “pivot to Asia”, they contend that terrorism and Islamist extremism presents a growing threat in north Africa which will require ever closer US-European security co-operation in the region.


In Beijing, China’s new leaders are eyeing Mr Obama’s second term with trepidation and hoping that the US will abandon its “pivot” policy of re-engaging in a region it had neglected in order to pursue costly wars in the Middle East.

Traditionally, Beijing has preferred Republicans over Democrats because, although they talk tougher, they are almost always ready to do business with China.

For China’s authoritarian but highly pragmatic leadership, the policy of benign neglect that typified George W Bush’s years in office is infinitely preferable to the strategy of containment it detects in Mr Obama’s heightened interest in Asia.

But after his attempts to reach out to Beijing early in his first term were met with steely snubs, Mr Obama is almost certain to continue with and even accelerate the pivot and America’s re-engagement in Asia.

On the economic front, China’s first priority as the world’s largest exporter of goods is to ensure that global markets remain open for trade and that Washington does not lean towards protectionism.


From Dakar to Cape Town, Africans had great expectations of Mr Obama. But many felt spurned during his first term. The first US president with African origins visited sub-Saharan Africa only once – and went to only one country, Ghana. He rarely appeared to give any priority to the continent his father came from.

By their own admission, senior US officials say much of their time has been devoted to fighting fires in Africa and too little to reshaping America’s engagement with the continent in a way that recognises the economic and commercial opportunities emerging there after a decade of rapid growth.

African countries will be hoping that Mr Obama’s second term provides a stronger incentive for US investment and trade. To be fair, American companies – and not just the oil and mining multinationals – are beginning to notice the high potential returns and strong demand for everything from services to consumer products. The same goes for US investment funds.

But the Chinese and other developing world players now provide competition in all sectors. So African states will also be looking for signs of a fresh US approach that takes into account the dramatic change in the continent’s relations with the outside world and recognises that African countries now have many suitors.

Latin America

It is hard to find many Latin Americans who think Mr Obama’s second term will mark a change in US policy. In part that is because US attitudes towards the region remain characterised by indifference when there are more urgent issues at home and abroad. And in part it is because the main issues – immigration; normalising ties with Cuba; and curbing US drug use and the violence associated with drug-trafficking, especially through gun control – contain large doses of US domestic politics.

Immigration reform is likely to make the most progress. Mr Obama has been explicit that reform is a top priority – especially as a central lesson of the last election was that the “Latino vote” was decisive in his victory.

Less is expected on Cuba and drugs. In Florida, Mr Obama won about half of the Cuban American vote. Younger Cuban-Americans, who are not single-issue voters like the older generation, want to change a policy that has demonstrably failed. But while changing US policy on Cuba would win Mr Obama plaudits in the region, it holds few political benefits for him domestically. John Kerry, Secretary of State, has also long been a critic of the US embargo. However, changing it would require an act of Congress – whose Cuban American members, including three Senators, would oppose change.

The drugs problem is more complex still. The states of Colorado and Washington have voted to legalise marijuana. But it remains illegal at the federal level, so these votes expose a contradiction, especially for Mexicans, who have taken on drug-smuggling cartels with great loss of life.

By Roula Khalaf, Tony Barber, Jamil Anderlini, William Wallis and John Paul Rathbone

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