This week President Obama has welcomed China’s leader Xi Jinping to Washington D.C. for an official state dinner, welcomed the Pope for an address to Congress, and stared down the possibility of a new government shutdown over federal funding for the organisation Planed Parenthood.
Despite this busy schedule, Barack is Obama is easing into his lame-duck days in the Oval Office.
Obama’s presidency has been divisive, earning accolades from some and scorn from others. Here are some of the key questions his successor will have to deal with upon taking office.
What will Cuba-US relations look like?
In the past year, President Obama has undertaken two headline-grabbing diplomatic initiatives. The first was with Cuba, and the second with Iran.
The Cuban issue should be far simpler. Isolation of communist Cuba has failed to stimulate any real change in the Caribbean country or improve security in Latin America. The reformed U.S.-Cuban relations will ease travel restrictions between the two countries separated by only 90 miles, whilst also opening up economic channels previously shut down during the Cold War.
Republican opposition to the rapprochement is partly based on ideological grounds: Cuba is a one party state, nominally communist, that imposes strict economic control and suppresses political dissidents.
However, the same critics rarely bring up U.S relations with human rights violators in Saudi Arabia or China, let alone the growing trade links with ‘communist’ Vietnam.
A cynic might instead point to the fact that the Republican Party is popular with Cuban exiles, many of whom live in the crucial swing state of Florida. Championed by Marco Rubio, this lobby group resents the U.S. easing relations with a government that has treated its citizens and their families with severity.
Should a Republican win in 2016, there is a chance they could backtrack on Obama’s Cuban initiative. Marco Rubio has firmly stated firmly that he would not go along with removing the embargo on Castro’s regime. Mike Huckabee has refused to endorse any deal with Havana, stating ‘they kick their own people in the groin’. Even the moderate Jeb Bush derides Obama’s pursuit of diplomacy in this case.
For Republicans, Cuba has assumed the status of a litmus test for hawkishness and could remain a contentious issue in foreign policy debates in 2016.
Will the Iran Deal go forward?
The fracas over the Iran Deal in Washington D.C. is a sign that American politicians remain divided over how to handle international threat in a post-Cold War world.
The agreements essentially sets down strict guidelines for Iran’s peaceful use of nuclear power, involving inspections and checks that are designed to prevent Tehran from reneging on the deal and developing a weapon.
The deal has been signed by the six countries of the U.N. Security Council and should pass the U.S. Congress with the necessary votes.
Republicans in Congress have been vocal in their opposition to the agreement. They argue that even within the confines of this agreement Iran can not be trusted, and that the attempt to find a diplomatic solutions makes an Iranian nuclear bomb more likely.
Surrounding these criticisms is the shared assumption that military strikes against Iran are an inevitability, and that force is the only way to leverage security in the Middle East.
The Secretary of State, John Kerry, and the President have appealed for bipartisan support of a deal that would avoid conflict and set the framework for a formalised system of security based on inspections and dialogue.
Democrats in 2016 will honour the Iran Deal: Republicans, on the other hand, are conflicted.
In the recent CNN debate Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, and Scott Walker stated they would tear up the agreement, while Marco Rubio and Chris Christie used less definitive language, but expressed extreme scepticism. John Kasich, Rand Paul, Jeb Bush and Donald Trump have instead claimed they would keep the deal, but on very strict terms.
The issue strikes at the heart of a central question in U.S. foreign policy concerning the role of military action and how to build security in today’s world.
President Obama and his team have taken the lesson from the Iraq War that force alone is not a recipe for sustained security, but must be supported by intelligent diplomacy.
Republican leadership caveats the failures in Iraq with the policies supported by Obama. Their lesson from the current crisis in Iraq is that continued, high volume military presence is central to real security. In short, they believe that had Obama maintained a high number of troops in Iraq, Islamic State would never have taken hold.
In addition, the Israel lobby exerts its own force on the Iran question. Much has been made of the rift between Israel’s Netanyahu and Barack Obama. Opposing the Iran Deal is an effective way for new Republican candidates to woo Israeli hawks who view Tehran with unequivocal mistrust.
What to do in the Middle East?
Islamic State is running a brutal, despicable regime in the Middle East. Yemen is being torn apart by civil war. Right wingers in Israel continue to teeter towards conflict with Palestinians. The Kurds strive for autonomy, sparking Turkish alarm over territorial claims. Splinter groups of Islamic fanaticism spread like a cancer across Africa. The big regional powers of Saudi Arabia and Iran fight proxy wars. All the while, untracked financial flows throughout the region fuel unrest and complicate diplomacy.
Leading a war-weary country that has been opposed to boots on the ground, Obama has struggled to handle the myriad of problems across the Middle East. If any crisis called for humanitarian intervention, it would be situation in Iraq and Syria.
Yet Washington has struggled to actively bring together regional allies to end the violence, and the pressure of the refugee flow has landed on European, not neighbouring, countries.
Barack Obama’s foreign policy has been largely conservative: a ‘don’t do anything stupid’ approach, peppered with moments of diplomatic triumph, and sustained drone warfare, intended to decapitate international terrorist networks.
The success of this strategy in the Middle East is very much in doubt. American funds to train combatants against IS have yielded only a handful of soldiers on the ground, and terrorist splinter-groups continue to beset parts of Africa.
The next President will have an enormous weight on their shoulders in international policy. Yet in the post-Iraq War years there is no consensus on America’s role in the world. Navigating not only the complex military and diplomatic landscape of the Middle East, but also the hallways of Congress in order to earn domestic support will be a nigh-unachievable goal.
Can America work with Putin?
In the past year, U.S.-Russian relations have soured. The Kremlin’s undeclared military involvement in Ukraine incited fears of a renewed Cold War, Russian jets continue to skirt into the airspace of America’s allies in Europe, and the personal relationship between Putin and Obama is reputedly very strained.
Despite that, there may be areas of cooperation between Russia and America.
Both countries share an interest in defeating IS and restoring some semblance of stability in the Middle East. The question is how to accomplish this goal.
For the past few weeks stories have emerged alleging a link between Damscus and Moscow as Putin seeks to supply Bashar al-Assad with military equipment, including gunships, to fight IS forces.
Up to this point, western forces have refused to countenance the Syrian dictator remaining in power, especially in the aftermath of chemical weapons attacks against the Syrian people.
However, as IS shows no signs of subsiding and refugees put a strain on the internal cohesion of the European Union, there may be some room for manoeuvrability.
Cooperation with Russia against IS leaves many further questions. What about the Kurds, who have arguably earned legitimacy for a sovereign state? How will the NATO-Russian antagonism affect any informal alliance? Would Assad be allowed to remain after the end of conflict?
The next President will immediately step into a contentious and dangerous relationship with Vladimir Putin, a leader whose actions are less predictable as his country’s economy continues to struggle.
Cracking down on China?
From territorial disputes in the South China Sea to currency manipulation, widespread hacking attempts to copyright breaches, the China-U.S. relations pose many difficult questions.
As mentioned in the China Conundrum post, there is a duality in American policy towards China. On the one hand, Chinese business and growth is intimately tied to American posterity. Yet at the same time Chinese interests often rankle U.S. policymakers, and economic competition can overwhelm cooperation in the form of data hacks.
Not to mention the abiding problem of human rights issues, which are underlying problem with the Chinese-U.S. relationship.
President Obama has sought to find areas of common ground with Xi Jinping and his colleagues. The question is whether his successor will risk souring these relations on any of the issues of this uneasy, complex association.