Obama’s second term: international challenges
20 Nov 2012|

Image courtesy of The White House.

Beyond domestic concerns, which I wrote about last week, the second term Obama administration has to address a number of challenging international issues. High on the list of serious problems is Iran’s continuing effort to achieve a nuclear weapon.

During the campaign, President Obama made it absolutely clear that he would not accept a nuclear armed Iran. In this, he was supported by Governor Romney. The sanctions that have been imposed by the West upon Iran do appear to be biting hard. As well, the Iranian currency has dropped alarmingly in value, given the international isolation of Tehran. Senior American policy makers believe that the Iranians may be about to come to the table to negotiate.

Should Iran be prepared to negotiate seriously, the US and its allies will need to be focused on a comprehensive solution to reduce tensions in the Middle East. This will be occurring at a time when Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, approaches retirement and the next occupant of this critical role, possibly Senator John Kerry (Democrat, Massachusetts) will have big shoes to fill. Mrs Clinton has been the standout performer in the Obama Cabinet.

For Australia, the re-election of Barack Obama means the continuity of US foreign and defence policy in our region. It’s fair to observe that there has been broad continuity of US policy through the Clinton, Bush and Obama presidencies with respect to China. And while the challenges inherent in China’s emergence as a strategic global player grow more apparent, the relationship between Washington and Beijing remains in reasonable order.

There are important issues to resolve, including territorial disputes over islands in the South China Sea and with Japan. But with the changing of the leadership in Beijing and the elevation of Xi Jinping to the leadership of the People’s Republic of China, there’s an opportunity for the US to take steps to strengthen the bilateral relationship by clarifying and resolving issues of concern in both the regional and global arenas.

Language is important in international relations. The American force posture adjustments in this part of the world are a case in point. Secretary Clinton insists upon the use of the word ‘pivot’, although in Washington, DC Asia-Pacific strategy is termed a ‘rebalancing’. However, Clinton understands that the President recognises the term ‘pivot’ from basketball and has been quite comfortable giving it diplomatic imprimatur.

Whatever it’s called, the current AUSMIN talks in Perth have offered Australia the opportunity to discuss with Secretaries Clinton and Panetta upon the rebalancing on US forces in the region in some detail. The Marine training deployment in the Northern Territory is now widely known and widely approved in Australia. But detail is required before the United States Air Force can have access to Australian air bases for exercise purposes. And the question of US naval forces transiting through HMAS Stirling in Western Australia will also remain on the agenda. Still, the level of cooperation between the United States and Australia in a military sense has seldom been closer in peace time.

Afghanistan also looms large on the AUSMIN agenda and it may well be that the newly returned Obama Administration will seek to draw down US forces deployed in America’s longest running conflict at a slightly more rapid pace. While there is no question that 2014 remains the primary date for transition to Afghan leadership for security in that country, it might be that the US seeks to move more demonstrably towards that goal during the course of 2013.

Stephen Loosley is the Chair of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute Council and Strategic Counsel for Minter Ellison. The views here are his own. Image courtesy of The White House.