State of the Union preview: Obama's foreign policy assessed by ISU's McCormick

AMES, Iowa -- Next Tuesday's State of the Union address will mark the midway point for President Obama's initial term in office. And while Obama will no doubt laud some of his administration's accomplishments -- particularly in its domestic agenda -- Iowa State University's political science chair reports mixed reviews on the president's foreign policy performance.

Professor James McCormick recently completed a comprehensive assessment of Obama's foreign policy efforts thus far for a book -- tentatively titled "The 'Big Bang' Presidency" and edited by Steven Schier -- which will be published later this year. In it, he wrote that the Obama administration came to office promising foreign policy change, but the degree of that change has been limited.

"In outlining a liberal internationalist foreign policy approach, the Obama administration has surely achieved change from the approach followed by the Bush administration," wrote McCormick, an author and editor of 10 books on U.S. foreign policy, including "American Foreign Policy and Process" (5th edition, Wadsworth Publishing, 2010). "In seeking to implement that approach -- whether evaluated through the changes in the substance of American policy or through the achievements that it has had -- the Obama administration has had much less success. In this sense, continuity in several foreign policy arenas remains more prevalent than change during the first two years of the Obama administration."

Consistent with Bush policy

In his text, McCormick cites several areas that reflect the administration's considerable continuity with the foreign policy of the Bush administration. As an example, he wrote that the Obama administration made an initial attempt to infuse domestic values into foreign policy with its three executive orders on the treatment of terrorist suspects, but the most visible symbol of the Bush policy -- Guantanamo Bay -- remains open, and military commissions continue as well.

McCormick contends that while Obama is more popular than Bush abroad, his popularity has not necessarily translated into American foreign policy gains.

"President Obama's personal popularity initially softened America's image abroad as compared to the Bush years, but that new 'soft power' has not been translated very easily into support for American foreign policy," McCormick wrote. "Further, on major security issues, with the exception of ending the Iraq War, the Obama administration's policy reflects more continuity than change -- whether addressing the Afghanistan War, the Middle East, or the nuclear threats from North Korea and Iran. Indeed, the strategy of engagement with North Korea and Iran has not yielded success; instead, relations with both countries appear to have eroded."

But McCormick also notes that Obama has initiated some substantive foreign policy changes and achieved at least one notable success.

"The Obama administration has begun to address a number of global commons issues with new policy approaches -- whether global financial reform, climate change, or nuclear nonproliferation," he wrote. "The degree of success in each of these areas remains unclear, but these policies do represent new departures from the Bush years.

"Finally, and importantly, Obama's strategy of engagement with Russia has had a substantial effect in improving that relationship and a New START Treaty is a crucial consequence of the 'reset' in relations with that country," he continued.

Still a work in progress

McCormick concludes that the president's foreign policy remains a "work in progress," and one still short on implementation. And he doesn't see the political climate becoming more favorable for greater implementation in the next two years.

"With the shift to Republican control of the U.S. House of Representatives and the lessening of Democratic control in the U.S. Senate after the 2010 congressional elections, and with the increasingly threatening international environment -- whether from the difficulties in the Afghan War, a more assertive North Korea, or the continuing actions of Iran (or perhaps elsewhere) -- the administration will likely find it difficult to continue its liberal internationalist agenda, much as the Clinton administration found after the 1994 congressional elections," McCormick wrote. "In this sense, foreign policy change may be in the air for the Obama administration, but perhaps not in the way that it had originally intended."