Foreign policy of Barack Obama

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International trips made by President Barack Obama during his time in office

The foreign policy of Barack Obama has been the foreign policy of the United States since Obama's administration in January 2009 was inaugurated. Obama named his chief rival for the nomination Hillary Rodham Clinton as Secretary of State during his first term, with Massachusetts Senator John Kerry taking over the post in February 2013. Supporters of Obama's foreign policy applaud what they describe as his cooperation with allies and multilateralism, his ending of the Iraq War, continued the process of ending U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan,[1] the administration's attempts at destroying al-Qaeda's core leadership, particularly the killing of Osama bin Laden; promoting discussions that led to the 2015 Paris Agreement on global climate change, brokering a nuclear deal with Iran, and normalizing U.S. relations with Cuba.

Supporters are typified by liberals such as Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, as well as advisors Susan Rice and Samantha Power. There is a debate on whether Obama's foreign policy is part of a general doctrine, but there is still no consensus on the existence and/or definition of an "Obama doctrine" and its effects on U.S. Foreign policy.

The Obama administration's foreign policy has received criticism across the political spectrum. "Hawkish" conservatives such as Obama's 2008 Republican challenger John McCain[2] and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham[3] have accused the President of being timid and ineffectual in wielding American influence. Some even claim that Obama's policy of "appeasement" leads to a US retreat from the world scene and to an abandon of U.S. allies.[4] On the other hand, more "dovish" liberals such as Jimmy Carter[5] and Dennis Kucinich[6] have accused him of cynicism and heavy-handedness. More specifically, some critics charge that he has pursued similarly imperialistic policies to those of his predecessor, George W. Bush,[7][8][9] of whom Obama was deeply critical during his tenure in the Senate and his 2008 presidential campaign.[10]

Substantial geopolitical developments that have occurred during Obama's presidency include: the aftermath of the world-wide "Great Recession" of 2008 and the ensuing Eurozone crisis; the P5+1 dialogue with Iran; the widespread Arab Spring protests that toppled numerous governments in the Middle East and precipitated civil wars in Libya and Syria; the opening of new fronts in the "War on Terror" such as Mali and Yemen, and the growing and controversial role of drone aircraft in the conflict; attempts to negotiate free trade agreements in the Trans-Pacific and Transatlantic areas; the mass unauthorized publication of classified documents by WikiLeaks, as well as Edward Snowden's revelations of extensive government surveillance,the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the return of US Forces to Iraq.

Secretary of State John Kerry told the Organization of American States in November 2013 that the Monroe Doctrine was dead.[11] On April 10, 2015, in Panama City, Panama, Obama said, “The days in which our agenda in this hemisphere so often presumed that the United States could meddle with impunity, those days are past,” he said.[12]



Obama gave his first major foreign policy speech of his campaign on April 23, 2007 to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, in which he outlined his foreign policy objectives, stressing five key points:

  1. "bringing a responsible end to this war in Iraq and refocusing on the critical challenges in the broader region,"
  2. "by building the first truly 21st century military and showing wisdom in how we deploy it,"
  3. "by marshalling a global effort to meet a threat that rises above all others in urgency – securing, destroying, and stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction,"
  4. "rebuild and construct the alliances and partnerships necessary to meet common challenges and confront common threats", and
  5. "while America can help others build more secure societies, we must never forget that only the citizens of these nations can sustain them."

President-elect Obama nominated former rival, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton to serve as his Secretary of State on December 1, 2008, and chose to keep Secretary of Defense Robert Gates as his Secretary of Defense. He would appoint General James L. Jones to serve as his National Security Advisor and nominate Governor of Arizona Janet Napolitano as Secretary of Homeland Security.

Clinton stated during her confirmation hearings that she believed that "the best way to advance America's interests in reducing global threats and seizing global opportunities is to design and implement global solutions." She stated, "We must use what has been called "smart power", the full range of tools at our disposal – diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal and cultural – picking the right tool or combination of tools for each situation. With smart power, diplomacy will be the vanguard of our foreign policy."[13]

During the last weeks before his inauguration, in addition to the several major conflicts in the world, fighting related to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict erupted anew, specifically in Gaza, between Israel and the Hamas-led government. The 2008–2009 Israel–Gaza conflict ended in an uneasy cease-fire on January 18, 2009, two days prior to Obama's inauguration.

Initial themes

In his inaugural address, Obama, elaborating on his foreign policy, suggested that he hoped to begin the process of withdrawing from Iraq and continuing to focus on the conflict in Afghanistan. He also mentioned lessening the nuclear threat through "working tirelessly with old friends and former foes." He spoke about America's determination to combat terrorism by proclaiming that America's spirit is "stronger and cannot be broken – you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you." To the Muslim world, Obama extended an invite to "a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect." He also said we would be willing to "extend a hand" to those "who cling to power through corruption and deceit" if they "are willing to unclench" their fists.[14]

On his first full day as president, Obama called on Israel to open the borders of Gaza, detailing early plans on his administration's peace plans for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.[15] Obama and Secretary of State Clinton named George Mitchell as Special Envoy for Middle East peace and Richard Holbrooke as special representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan on January 23, 2009.[16] The Mitchell appointment signaled that Clinton might stay away from the direct Secretary-level negotiating that her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, had spent much effort on during the previous two years.[17]

Within less than a week in her new position, Secretary of State Clinton already called almost 40 foreign leaders or foreign ministers.[18] She said the world was eager to see a new American foreign policy and that, "There is a great exhalation of breath going on around the world. We’ve got a lot of damage to repair."[18] She did indicate that not every past policy would be repudiated, and specifically said it was essential that the six-party talks over the North Korean nuclear weapons program continue.[19]

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrives at the State Department on her first day greeted by a standing room only crowd of Department employees.

His trip to Denmark, that failed to convince the International Olympic Committee to award the 2016 Summer Olympic games to Chicago, made Denmark the sixteenth country Obama visited since becoming President on January 20, 2009. This edged out President's Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush (both tied at 15 visits in their first year) to make Obama the most traveled first year President.[20]


Obama's 2013 foreign policy team

The administration appointed, or allowed to remain in office, 2,465 ambassadors. Most were career diplomats. 805 were political appointees. 110 of 150 ambassadorships were political in the Caribbean; 259 out of 358 appointees in Western Europe were political. Career diplomats dominated all other areas including: North and Central America, South America, Africa, Eastern Europe, Middle East, East Asia, South Asia and Oceania. In Central Asia, all appointees were career.[21]

Although he regards Obama's foreign policy stance as pragmatic and dovish, Robert Dreyfuss is concerned that several of Obama's top advisers have hawkish stances or connections. These include Tony Lake, United Nations ambassador-designate Susan Rice, Tom Daschle and Dennis Ross, along with leading Democratic hawks like Richard Holbrooke, close to vice president-elect Joe Biden or secretary of state-designate Hillary Clinton[22] Dreyfuss claims that Dennis Ross is the "inside man for the neoconservatives" in the Obama administration.[23]

Obama administration foreign policy personnel
Vice President Biden
Secretary of State Clinton
Secretary of Defense Gates
Ambassador to the United Nations Rice
Director of National Intelligence Blair
Director of the Central Intelligence Agency Panetta
Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Jones
Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Donilon
Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting Rhodes
Trade Representative Kirk
Current ・ Former ・ Acting


Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete was the first African Head of State to meet Obama

While located on the African continent, the countries of Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, and Western Sahara are not considered to be part of Sub-Saharan Africa and therefore are not associated with Africa for the foreign policy purposes of the United States.[citation needed] Instead they are considered to be part of the Near East (commonly referred to as the Middle East) when talking about United States foreign policy. Depending on the source, these countries may or may not be included when African foreign policy is mentioned.

During the 2008 campaign, Obama outlined his priorities for developing an Africa policy including taking action to stop "what U.S. officials have termed genocide in Darfur, fighting poverty, and expanding prosperity."[24] Some analysts believed that Obama's appointment of Susan Rice who is a former assistant secretary of state for African affairs, as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations was a sign that his administration would prioritize the continent.[24]

Then Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton, in a January 13 hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that the administration priorities would include "combating al-Qaida's efforts to seek safe havens in failed states in the Horn of Africa; helping African nations to conserve their natural resources and reap fair benefits from them; stopping war in Congo; [and] ending autocracy in Zimbabwe and human devastation in Darfur."[25]

Darfur, Eastern Congo, Ghana and Zimbabwe have all played a significant role in the United States Africa policy. Some foreign policy analysts believed that conflicts in "Sudan, Somalia, and eastern Congo" would "eclipse any other policy plans."[24][dead link]

President Obama visited Cairo, Egypt, where he addressed the "Muslim world" on June 4[26] and followed this trip with his first visit to sub-Saharan Africa, as President, on July 11, 2009 where he addressed Ghana's Parliament.[27]

He was followed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who took a seven nation trip to Africa in August including stops in Angola, Cape Verde, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria and South Africa. Some foreign policy analysts have made the claim that this is "the earliest in any U.S. administration that both the president and the secretary of state have visited Africa."

War in Somalia

The Administration has been interested in propping up the Transitional National Government in Mogadishu. To this end, as well as to help cut down on terrorist activities and piracy in the region, the United States has deployed special operations forces, drones, air strikes and some military advisers to influence the ongoing Somali civil war and neutralize prominent Al-Shabaab members.[28][29][30][31]


One of the first actions of the Obama administration was to sign a memorandum of understanding with Kenya that would allow pirates captured off of Kenya's coast to be tried in Kenyan courts.[32][33]

Somali pirates took Richard Phillips, a captain of an American cargo ship, hostage on April 8, 2009 during a failed attempt to take over the Maersk Alabama.[34] President Obama ordered the U.S. military to conduct a rescue mission to free Phillips who was held hostage by the pirates for five days. He was rescued on April 12, 2009 by United States Navy SEALs who killed three pirates and obtained the surrender of a fourth, Abduwali Muse.[35][36][37][38][39]

The Obama administration's reaction and response to the kidnapping of Phillips has been commended as well as criticized, while others downplay his role in the rescue of Richard Phillips.[40][41][42] In 2014, Obama sought to increase operations in the Horn region in response to the Westgate mall attack in Kenya. A taskforce for the Horn peninsula has initiated drone strikes against pirates and al-Qaeda affiliates.[43]


Obama is a strong critic of the government of Zimbabwe led by President Robert Mugabe.[citation needed] Although Obama congratulated longtime opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai on becoming Prime Minister of Zimbabwe under a power-sharing agreement, U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Wood warned, "We need to see evidence of good governance and particularly real, true power sharing on the part of Robert Mugabe before we are going to make any kind of commitment" to lifting economic sanctions on the impoverished Southern African country, which has been ruled by Mugabe since independence in 1980.[44]

After the death of Susan Tsvangirai, the prime minister's wife, in an automobile collision in central Zimbabwe on March 6, 2009, the U.S. State Department expressed condolences to Tsvangirai, who also received minor injuries in the wreck.[45]

Prime Minister Tsvangirayi met with President Obama on June 12, 2009 at the White House.[46]

Tsvangirai meets with Obama in the White House in June 2009

After Morgan Tsvangirai, Mugabe's rival and leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, became Prime Minister of Zimbabwe under a power-sharing agreement, the Barack Obama administration extended its congratulations to Tsvangirai, but said that the U.S. would wait for evidence of Mugabe's cooperation with the MDC before it would consider lifting its sanctions.[44] In early March 2009, Obama proclaimed that US sanctions would be protracted provisionally for another year, because Zimbabwe's political crisis as yet unresolved.[47]

War in Mali

Obama has backed the central government in its effort to suppress a rebellion on the Tuaregs in the north of the country. Islamists have joined the rebel movement. The United States has provided the bulk of air transportation and air refueling for government and French forces in the area. Violating an earlier promise to not commit American ground forces to the fight, in April 2013 Obama revealed that American troops were on the ground fighting in Mali.[48][49][50]


Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced in 2011 a rebalancing of foreign policy that would give more emphasis on Asia, especially in response to the rapidly growing Chinese role in the region. She called for "a substantially increased investment – diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise – in the Asia-Pacific region."[51] As of 2014, many analysts did not find significant changes and some argued that the U.S. is again neglecting the region.[52] Obama's support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership was motivated in large part by his goal to "pivot" the US to East Asia.[53]

East Asia

President Barack Obama addresses the opening session of the first U.S.–China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.
President Obama at the Vimean Santepheap (Peace Palace) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton left on her first foreign policy tour (to Asia) on February 15, 2009 with stops in Japan, China, South Korea, Philippines, and Indonesia.[54] The Secretary has travelled to the region extensively, including at least three trips to various countries in the region in 2009, 2010 and 2011[55] In July 2012, Secretary Clinton traveled Mongolia, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.[56] The visit to Laos was the first by a Secretary of State in 57 years.[57]

On April 1, 2009, Obama and Hu Jintao announced the establishment of the high-level U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue co-chaired by Hillary Clinton and Timothy Geithner on the U.S. side and Dai Bingguo and Wang Qishan on the Chinese side and on May 16, 2009 Obama personally announced the nomination of Jon Huntsman, Jr., the Republican Governor of Utah to fill the position of Ambassador to China. Huntsman was the only ambassador in the Administration to be personally announced by the President[58] times and both he and President Barack Obama believed that the United States' relationship with China was the most important in the world. Later that year, President Obama and Secretary Clinton made a high-profile trip to China on November 15–18, 2009 marking Obama's first visit to China. It was Obama's first presidential Asia trip since he was inducted. He also went to Japan, Singapore for the APEC summit and South Korea for the first U.S.-ASEAN summit. The United States Pacific Command have also been at the forefront of efforts to strengthen military relationships in the region.[59] The United States and China often clashed over China's claims in the South China Sea, parts of which are also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia.[60]

In 2014, President Obama stated that the United States recognized Tibet as part of China but also encouraged the Chinese authorities to take steps to preserve the unique cultural, religious and linguistic identity of the Tibetan people.[61]

United States President Barack Obama and Lee walking after a meeting at the Blue House in Seoul in November 2010.
Hillary Clinton with Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong.

North Korea

North Korea is a major trouble area, especially regarding nuclear weapons and threats of military action.[62] Not long after Obama took office North Korea elbowed its way back onto the international stage after a period of relative quiet,[63] drawing accusations of planning a new long-range intercontinental ballistic missile test weeks after Obama was sworn in[64][65] and performing an unannounced nuclear warhead and missile testing in late May 2009 to the disapproval of the State Department.[66] Relations were further strained with the imprisonment of American journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling for their alleged illegal entry into North Korean territory on assignment for a media organization.[67] although both women were later released on August 5, 2009.[68] Later that year, Pyongyang announced its intention to terminate the 1953 armistice ending hostilities in the Korean War on May 28, 2009 effectively restarting the nearly 60-year-old conflict, and prompting the South Korea-United States Combined Forces Command to Watchcon II, the second-highest alert level possible.[69] In 2010, two more major incidents with North Korea would occur the: the sinking of a South Korean Navy Ship that actuated new rounds of military exercises with South Korea as a direct military response to sinking[70] and the Bombardment of Yeonpyeong prompting the US aircraft carrier USS George Washington to depart for joint exercises in the Yellow Sea with the Republic of Korea Navy, to deter further North Korean military action.[71][72] In light of the geopolitical developments with North Korea, the Obama Administration has called the U.S.-South Korean alliance as a "cornerstone of US security in the Pacific Region."[69]


Japan, a major ally of the United States, has been engaged in a diplomatic disputed with China over control of the South China Sea. In then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's inaugural tour of East Asia, she reassured Japanese officials of Japan's centrality in the network of American alliances.[73] In response to the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, the United States initiated Operation Tomodachi to support Japan in disaster relief following the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami[74] earning gratitude from Japan's minister of defense, Toshimi Kitazawa who, while visiting the Ronald Reagan, thanked its crew for its assistance as part of Operation Tomodachi saying, "I have never been more encouraged by and proud of the fact that the United States is our ally."[75]

South Asia

Asif Ali Zardari, Barack Obama and Hamid Karzai during a US-Afghan-Pakistan trilateral meeting

For purposes of U.S. foreign policy, South Asia consists of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. The Obama administrations's South Asian foreign policy was outlined in "The Obama Administration's Policy on South Asia" by Robert O. Blake, Jr., Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, who wrote "[o]ur goal was and remains to support the development of sovereign, stable, democratic nations, integrated into the world economy and cooperating with one another, the United States, and our partners to advance regional security and stability.

At the start of the Obama administration there were several regional hot spots within South Asia including Afghanistan, India and Pakistan. Several conflicts exist within the region including an ongoing war in Afghanistan and an ongoing conflict in North-West Pakistan.

President Obama with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during the first dinner hosted by the Obama administration.

On February 18, 2009, Obama announced that the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan would be bolstered by 17,000 new troops by the summer.[76] Obama also ordered the expansion of airstrikes to include the organization of Baitullah Mehsud, the militant chief reportedly behind the 2007 assassination of Benazir Bhutto,[77] as priority targets.[78]

The U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan, that were begun by President George W. Bush, have increased substantially[78] since an expansion of the attacks was authorized by President Barack Obama in 2009.[79] Drones have resulted in civilian casualties, and intentionally targeted rescuers, funerals, and one U.S. citizen.[80][81] UN reports have described the U.S. drone wars as extrajudicial killing[82] and summary executions.[83]

There is also tension between India and Pakistan who both possess nuclear weapons. This conflict has been ongoing since August 1947 after the Partition of India. Recent developments in this conflict involve the Kashmir region with Pakistan controlling the northwest portion, India controlling the central and southern portion and the People's Republic of China controlling the northeastern portion of Kashmir. Criticism has been leveled at the Obama administration for its apparent lack of an early response to U.S. foreign policy with India. The former director for South Asia in the National Security Council in the Bush administration, Xenia Dormandy claims that India is America's indispensable ally in the region and that the Obama administration should take steps to improve relations with India.[84][85][86][87][88]


President Barack Obama talks with Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk of Ukraine at the conclusion of their bilateral meeting in the Oval Office, March 12, 2014.

Fabbrini in 2011 identified a cycle in anti-Americanism in Europe: modest in the 1990s, it grew explosively between 2003–2008, then declined after 2008. He sees the current version as related to images of American foreign policy-making as unrestrained by international institutions or world opinion. Thus it is the unilateral policy process and the arrogance of policy makers, not the specific policy decisions, that are decisive.[89]

Ukraine crisis

In the wake of the Euromaidan protests the Obama administration has embraced the new government of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. After Russia began to occupy the Crimean peninsula Obama warned Russia of "severe consequences" if Russia annexes the region and attempted to negotiate a withdraw of Russian troops. To date, all negotiations have been unsuccessful.[90] On December 18, 2014 Obama signed into law Ukraine Freedom Support Act of 2014.[91]

Russia and Eastern Europe

Tensions remain high as Russia pushes back against the expansion of NATO and the European community into areas once under the control of the Russian and Soviet Empires. Ukraine and Georgia have been flash points. Obama called for a "reset" of relations with Russia, and the policy became known as the Russian reset. But critics debate whether or not it has improved bilateral relations or has conceded too much to Russia.[92]

Middle East

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on Operation Neptune's Spear, a mission against Osama bin Laden, in one of the conference rooms of the Situation Room of the White House, on May 1, 2011. They are watching live feed from drones operating over the bin Laden complex.
President Barack Obama along with members of the national security team, receive an update on Operation Neptune's Spear, in the White House Situation Room, May 1, 2011. See also: The Situation Room

War in Iraq

During his campaign for the presidency, Barack Obama advocated a phased redeployment of troops out of Iraq within 16 months of being sworn in as president.[93] In order to accomplish this Obama stated that he would, based on the conditions on the ground, redeploy between one and two battalions a month.[94] Some of the forces would return to the U.S., while others would be redeployed as part of a focus on the broader region including Afghanistan and Pakistan to confront terrorism.[95]

Obama was in office for 3 years of the Iraq war. The U.S. gradually completed its withdrawal of military personnel in December 2011. In late February 2009, newly elected U.S. President Barack Obama announced an 18-month withdrawal window for combat forces, with approximately 50,000 soldiers remaining in the country. In November 2013 Obama met with Iraqi prime minister Nouri Maliki. He vowed a continuing partnership but said there would be no public aid, and urged to prime minister to be more inclusive, especially with regards to the Sunni population. Obama also encouraged wider political participation and passing an election law. They discussed how to curb a resurgent al-Qaeda and how to more thoroughly incorporate democracy in the country.[96] President Obama changed the timeline of withdrawing troops from Iraq within 16 months of his taking office as outlined in the election to 19 months after taking office.

Obama appointed several Special Envoys including a Special Envoy for Middle East peace (George Mitchell) and a Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan (Richard C. Holbrooke). In 2013, Obama urged the leaders of the middle east to do more to stem or address the multiple locations where Sunni-Shia sttrife is occurring in the middle east, including in Bahrain, Syria and Iraq.[97]

2014 Intervention

In the wake of the shattering of the Iraqi military following 2014 Northern Iraq offensive Obama deployed thousands of American Marines, Special Forces troops and military advisers to shore up the remaining Iraqi forces.[98][99][100][101] These troops were also tasked with securing the area around the American Embassy in Baghdad as well as taking control of the International Airport. Obama said that the actions of these men would be "targeted and precise".[98]

The administration also moved a carrier battle group in to the Persian Gulf. Americans have been flying extensive reconsisance flights, both manned and unmanned.[99] American F-18 attack aircraft have also been spotted in the skies over Iraq since mid-summer.[98]

In early August the Administration announced a wide-ranging air campaign in northern Iraq aimed at Sunni militants, while undertaking a significant humanitarian efforts aimed at Iraq's imperiled minorities.[102]


The 2009 Iranian presidential election was held on June 12, 2009. Candidates included Ahmadinejad, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the former Prime Minister of Iran, and Mehdi Karroubi, a former Speaker of the Iranian Parliament. There are reports that the upcoming election had influenced deliberations about the "timing for potential Iran Talks." [103] Obama signed the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 on July 1, 2010 to expand sanctions on Iran. The restrictions of the new law are so tight that third countries have warned about the interference with their trade.[104] However under Obama, Iran's oil exports have been halved.[105]

After the election of centrist moderate Hassan Rouhani as President in 2013, Iran started a new stage of dialogue in its foreign relations in a bid to improve relations with the west. At Rouhani's official visit to New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly, Obama requested a bilateral meeting with Rouhani, which didn't take place due to time restraints according to Rouhani. Rouhani stated that more time was needed to organise a proper meeting between the two countries' leaders due to the troubled past relationship of the two nations. On 27 September 2013, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Secretary of State John Kerry held a one-on-one meeting, the first between the U.S. and Iran in a generation. The rare get-together was groundbreaking, according to Iranian analysts. One day later, Obama and Rouhani spoke with each other on the phone, the highest level of communication between the two nations leaders since the Iranian Revolution of 1979.[106]


President Barack Obama, at left, shakes hands with Israeli President Shimon Peres, at right, in the Oval Office on Tuesday, May 5, 2009. Standing at right looking on is U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.
Obama meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres, May 2009

Relations between the U.S. and Israel have deteriorated considerably under the Barack Obama administration. While the overall alliance remains intact, antagonism between Barack Obama and current Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has eroded bilateral ties between the two nations. Israel announced it was pushing ahead with building 1,600 new homes in a Jewish area in East Jerusalem in March 2010, as Vice-President Joe Biden was visiting. It was described as "one of the most serious rows between the two allies in recent decades".[107] Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Israel's move was "deeply negative" for US-Israeli relations.[108] However Obama was the first United States president to supply Israel with modern bunker buster bombs.[109] And under Obama, United States Foreign Military Financing for Israel has increased to $3 billion for the first time in history.[110] Obama has pledged support for Israeli military superiority in the region and his described his allegiance with Israel as being "sacrosanct".[111]

On September 20, 2011, President Obama declared that the U.S. would veto a Palestinian application for statehood at the United Nations, asserting that "there can be no shortcut to peace".[112] Furthermore, in February, the administration had vetoed a U.N. resolution declaring Israeli settlements in the West Bank illegal.[113]

In 2014 Obama said that only a Two-state solution could ensure Israel's future as a Jewish-majority democracy.[114] Ehud Barak described Obama's support for Israel as being unparalleled and the most supportive in history, stating that Obama has done "more than anything that I can remember in the past" and that Obama's support is "extremely deep and profound".[115][116]

Libya air attacks

After initial skepticism of international involvement to prevent Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi from using violence to suppress popular demonstrations in his country,[117] the Obama administration crucially backed United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 to create a Libyan no-fly zone, with United States Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice successfully pushing to include language allowing the UN mandate free rein to launch air attacks on Libyan ground targets threatening civilians.[118]

In March 2011, Obama authorized the firing of 110 Tomahawk cruise missiles against targets in Libya, in response to regime actions against rebel forces, to enforce the UN no-fly zone.[119]


President Obama stands at a podium delivering a speech on "A New Beginning" at Cairo University on June 4, 2009
Obama speaking on "A New Beginning" at Cairo University on June 4, 2009

After escalating demonstrations challenged the long-standing strong-man rule of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Obama and many European leaders called for him to step down and he did so in 2011. The Egyptians elected a new government based on the Muslim Brotherhood. However the new President Mohamed Morsi was overthrown in 2013 by the military. President Obama noted that the crisis in Egypt is deplorable and tragic; the situations at the end of 2013 remained very tense.[120]


File:Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama (2015-09-29) 04.jpg
President Obama meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss Syria and ISIL, September 29, 2015

In 2012, Obama said that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad government would be crossing a red line and would entail U.S. military action.[121] After reports on 21 August 2013 about the usage of chemical weapons in Syria, the Obama administration formally blamed the incident on the Syrian government and sought Congress approval for military action in Syria. Besides, Obama sought support from Britain and France for an attack in Syria.[122] The Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel approved plans for a barrage of Tomahawk cruise missile strikes to have those called off by Obama in September.[123] On 11 September 2013, Obama put a military strike or combat operations on hold and achieved an agreement with Russia and the Syrian government to destroy all chemical weapons in Syria.[124]

Obama′s decision to allow the violation of a red line he himself had drawn to go unpunished is widely criticised by the U.S. political establishment as detrimental to America′s international credibility.[121] However, in early 2016, Obama said he was "proud" of his decision, which repudiated what he referred to as the "Washington playbook" and avoided entangling the US in yet another "unfixable" situation in the Middle East.[121][125] More broadly, regarding Obama's lack of meaningful support to the Syrian anti-government rebels, in 2015, The Economist opined, "Rarely has an American president so abjectly abandoned his global responsibility."[126]

Bahrain protests

Some in the media questioned Obama's decision to welcome Bahrain in Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa in June 2011 because of the fierce crackdown on protesters in the country. The collaboration of Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states with Bahrains royalty, had carried out mass repression since the middle of March. This included detaining, beating and torture of thousands.[127] In June 2013, Obama urged meaningful reform in Bahrain.[128] Bahraini officials rejected Obama's claims about sectarianism between Sunnis and Shias.[97] Nevertheless, the Obama administration resumed providing arms and maintenance to the regime during its crackdown on pro-democracy groups, including ammunition, combat vehicle parts, communications equipment, Blackhawk helicopters, and an unidentified missile system.[129][130] Accordingly, the administration's larger policy on dealing with the "Arab Spring" is to continue propping up longtime client regimes while fostering "regime alteration."[131]

Saudi Arabia

The United States and Saudi Arabia continued their post-war alliance during the Obama presidency, and the Obama Administration supported the Saudi Arabian-led intervention in Yemen during the Yemeni Civil War.[132] However, tensions between the Saudis and the United States arose following the Iranian nuclear deal, as Saudi Arabia and Iran have strained relations and have competed for influence in the Middle East.[132] The Obama administration attempted to defuse tensions between the two countries, as it hoped for cooperation with both countries in regards to the Syrian Civil War and military operations against ISIS.[133] Obama also criticized the human rights record of Saudi Arabia, particularly in regards to the imprisonment of Raif Badawi.[134] According to The Economist, thanks in large part to Obama, America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia became "deeply strained" under his tenure.[135]



President Obama meets with Argentine President Mauricio Macri in Buenos Aires, March 23, 2016

President Obama made a state visit to Argentina on March 23–24, 2016 to improve the Argentina–United States relations under the administration of newly elected Argentine president, Mauricio Macri. This followed strained relations under predecessors Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Néstor Kirchner regarding investments.[136] Obama and Macri discussed ways to strengthen cooperation in promoting "universal values and interests," such as in the areas of security, energy, health and human rights, where the two presidents have agreed for American help to assist Argentina's counter-terrorism efforts, to contribute to peacekeeping missions, combat illegal drug trade and organized crime, respond to diseases and outbreaks like the Zika virus, and develop resources and renewable energy strategies.[137]

Obama declared a "fresh era" of relations that would help Argentina's credibility in the Latin American region and the world, and announced trade and economic initiatives to reset the countries' relations after years of tension.[138]


Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (left) and President Barack Obama (right) meet in Washington in March 2016

After Obama's presidential election victory in 2008, it was announced that Mr. Obama's first international trip would be to Canada, which took place on February 19, 2009.[139]

Aside from Canadian lobbying against "Buy American" provisions in the US stimulus package, relations between the two administrations had been smooth up to 2011. On February 4, 2011, Harper and Obama issued a "Declaration on a Shared Vision for Perimeter Security and Economic Competitiveness".[140][141]

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was elected on October 2015, visited the White House for an official visit and state dinner on March 10, 2016.[142] Trudeau and Obama were reported to have shared warm personal relations during the visit, making humorous remarks about which country was better at hockey and which country had better beer.[143] Obama complimented Trudeau's 2015 election campaign for its "message of hope and change" and "positive and optimistic vision". Obama and Trudeau also held "productive" discussions on climate change and relations between the two countries, and Trudeau invited Obama to speak in the Canadian parliament in Ottawa later in the year.[144]


Obama continued Plan Colombia, a diplomatic aid initiative launched by President Bill Clinton to aid Colombia's economy. Partially as a result of Plan Colombia, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos negotiated an agreement with the guerrilla organization FARC.[145] Though Colombia remained a major producer of drugs, it saw remarkable progress in the reduction of kidnappings, homicides, and unemployment.[145] In addition to continuing Plan Colombia, Obama appointed Bernard Aronson as a special envoy to the peace process between the Colombian government and FARC in order to facilitate negotiations.[145] However, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and others criticized Obama for engaging with FARC, an organization that appears on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations.[145] Obama promised that the US would continue its policy of financial aid to Colombia in the aftermath of the proposed peace deal.[146]


Meeting between President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro in Panama, April 2015

During his presidential campaign in 2008, Obama asserted that his policy toward Cuba would be based on "libertad", promising that as President of the United States, he would push the Cuban government to embrace democratic reforms and free political prisoners.[147] After his election, former Cuban President Fidel Castro said he was "open" to the idea of meeting with the president-elect.[148] However most of his policies towards Cuba before 2014 were little changed from the Bush policies.[149]

After Obama announced the closure of the Guantánamo Bay detention camp shortly after his inauguration, Cuban President Raúl Castro said Havana would continue to push for the U.S. to "liquidate" the entire Guantanamo Bay Naval Base and return the land to Cuba.[150] He was joined by his brother Fidel, who abandoned his magnanimity toward the new U.S. president and demanded that the base be retroceded to Cuba.[151]

While the United States House of Representatives passed legislation, backed by Obama, to ease certain travel and cash transactions imposed against Cuba by the U.S., on February 25, 2009, sanctions which were further eased by Obama unilaterally in April 2009,[152] the president continues to oppose lifting the embargo against Cuba.[153] Obama professes to view the embargo as a useful tool for leverage on pushing for reform in Cuba.[154] This is in contrast to what Obama stated in 2004 when he said that it was time "to end the embargo with Cuba" because it had "utterly failed in the effort to overthrow Castro."[155] Obama's stance has met criticism from both Fidel Castro[156] and members of the U.S. government, including ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Richard Lugar.[157] A panel with the Washington-based Brookings Institution released a report in late February 2009 urging Obama to normalize relations with Cuba.[158]

On June 2, leading a delegation to Honduras for the Organization of American States General Assembly, Clinton affirmed that Cuba needs to reach a certain political and democratic standard to rejoin the organization.[159] On 10 December 2013, Obama shook hands with Raul Castro at the state funeral of Nelson Mandela.[160]

In December 2014, after the secret meetings, it was announced that Obama, with Pope Francis as an intermediary, had negotiated a restoration of relations with Cuba, after nearly sixty years of détente.[161] Popularly dubbed the Cuban Thaw, The New Republic deemed the Cuban Thaw to be "Obama's finest foreign policy achievement."[162] On July 1, 2015, President Barack Obama announced that formal diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States would resume, and embassies would be opened in Washington and Havana.[163] The countries' respective "interests sections" in one another's capitals were upgraded to embassies on July 20 and August 13, 2015, respectively.[164]

Obama has visited Havana, Cuba for two days in March 2016, becoming the first sitting U.S. President to arrive since Calvin Coolidge in 1928.[165]


On June 28, 2009, President Manuel Zelaya was arrested and exiled from the country. Obama condemned the action and described the event as a coup. On July 7, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Zelaya and agreed upon a U.S.-backed proposal for negotiations with the Micheletti government, mediated by President Óscar Arias of Costa Rica.[166] At the conclusion of the meeting, Clinton announced the suspension of economic and military aid to the Honduran government.[167] However, the U.S. led a group of Western Hempishere countries supporting the outcome of November 2009 presidential election of Porfirio Lobo as a way forward to resolve the situation.[168]


The Obama administration maintains a $5 million annual budget for backing opposition activities against the Venezuelan government.[169]

While Barack Obama set a conciliatory tone for his relations with Venezuela during his candidacy, saying he would be willing to meet with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez without preconditions at a July 23, 2007, presidential debate,[170] the Venezuelan leader has been fickle in his opinion of Obama. Even during the election he varied from liking Obama to saying that nothing would change with the US.

On February 15, 2009, Chávez said, "Any day is propitious for talking with President Barack Obama,"[171] but said later that month that he "couldn't care less" about meeting the new U.S. president[172] ahead of an impending confrontation between the two leaders at the Summit of the Americas in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, in mid-April.[173]

Chávez derided Obama as "a continuation of the Bush era" after a U.S. report on narcotics trafficking was released in late February 2009. "Don't mess with me, Mr. Obama", warned Chávez, who had been president of Venezuela since 1999.[174]

However, as recently as the first week of March, Chávez called upon Obama to follow the path to socialism, which he termed as the "only" way out of the global recession. "Come with us, align yourself, come with us on the road to socialism. This is the only path. Imagine a socialist revolution in the United States", Chávez told a group of workers in the southern Venezuelan state of Bolívar. He said that people were calling Obama a "socialist" for the measures of state intervention he is taking to counter the crisis, so it would not be too far-fetched to suggest that he might join the project of "21st century socialism" that the Venezuelan leader is heading.

Later in March he referred to Obama as a "poor ignoramus" for not knowing the situation in Latin America and even implied that Brazil's President Lula was not completely happy with his meeting with Obama. However the Brazilian Foreign Ministry denied that this was the case.[175]

In Tokyo in early April, where he attended meetings to discuss trade deals with the Japanese, Chávez said he was not biased against the Obama administration and he fully supported the idea of a 21st-century free from conflict.

In Trinidad on April 17, 2009, Obama and Chávez met for the first time, with the former asking in Spanish, "Come estás?" Later, Chávez walked over to Obama during the summit, and handed him a copy of The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent by Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano, an essay about U.S. and European economic and political interference in the region. During the summit, Obama is reported to have said, to much applause, "We have at times been disengaged, and at times we sought to dictate our terms, but I pledge to you that we seek an equal partnership. There is no senior partner and junior partner in our relations".[citation needed]


New Zealand

The Obama administration has continued to develop closer relations with New Zealand, particularly in the area of defense and intelligence cooperation. Relations with the National government led by Prime Minister John Key have been smooth and friendly. This process had already begun under the previous George W. Bush administration in 2007, which culminated in a state visit by the-then Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark to the United States in July 2008. While the United States and New Zealand had been close allies since World War II and were members of the tripartite ANZUS security alliance with Australia, US-NZ bilateral relations had deteriorated under the Ronald Reagan Administration in February 1985 due to New Zealand's anti-nuclear policy which banned visits by nuclear-capable or nuclear-powered warships.[176] As a result, no bilateral military exercises had taken place until April 2012 and New Zealand warships were barred from visiting US ports and participating in joint naval exercises until May 2013.[177][178]

On 4 November 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her New Zealand counterpart Minister of Foreign Affairs Murray McCully signed the Wellington Declaration which committed the two countries to a closer bilateral relationship with an increased emphasis on strategic partnership. This strategic partnership had two fundamental elements: "a new focus on practical cooperation in the Pacific region; and enhanced political and subject-matter dialogue - including regular Foreign Ministers' meetings and political-military discussions."[179] The agreement also stressed the continued need for New Zealand and the United States to work together on global issues like nuclear proliferation, climate change and terrorism.[179]

Following the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, President Obama expressed his condolences to Prime Minister Key. The US government also contributed $1 million in relief funds while the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Los Angeles County Fire Department contributed rescue teams.[176] On 23 July 2011, Prime Minister John Key also visited President Obama at the White House.[180] The John Key National government also continued to contribute military forces to support the US-led War in Afghanistan, including the elite New Zealand Special Air Service. The previous Labour government had also contributed military forces to Afghanistan since October 2001.[176] In April 2013, the last remaining NZ troops withdrew from Afghanistan.[181]

On 19 June 2012, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and his New Zealand counterpart Minister of Defence Jonathan Coleman signed the Washington Declaration which committed the US and New Zealand to a closer defense cooperation arrangement.[182] It sought to restore defense cooperation between the two countries which had been curtailed by the ANZUS Split. Two key areas of this Declaration included the resumption of regular senior-level dialogues between the US Department of Defense and the New Zealand Ministry of Defence and the New Zealand Defence Force; and security cooperation.[183] As a result of the Washington Declaration, New Zealand warships were allowed to visit US ports even though New Zealand's anti-nuclear policy remained intact.[178] The Washington Declaration was also part of the Obama administration's pivot into the Asia-Pacific to counter the emerging influence of China.[184]

Other issues

NSA spying scandal

In early 2013 Edward Snowden leaked to the media a trove of documents on the Obama administration's controversial mass surveillance campaign. These revelations have strained relationships between Obama and the foreign leaders that his administration is spying on.[185][186][187][188] Fears of American spy software have also cost several American companies contracts for export work.[189][190][191]

Muslim relations

On January 26, 2009, Obama gave his first formal interview as president to the Arabic-language television news channel Al Arabiya.[192][193] Obama said that, "My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy."[192] Obama mentioned that he had spent several years growing up in the world's most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia, and called for resumed negotiations between Israel and Palestinians.[192] Obama's gesture in reaching out to the Muslim world was unprecedented for a U.S. president.[193]

President Obama's first trip to a Muslim majority country occurred on April 6–7, 2009 when he visited Turkey and spoke to the Grand National Assembly.[194]

President Obama addressed the Muslim world in a speech in Cairo, Egypt on June 4, 2009.[26] In that speech President Obama issued a call for "a new beginning" in the relationship between the United States and Muslims around the world. He outlined his ideas about "engaging the Muslim world" and how to create "a new beginning."

Farah Pandith was appointed as the State Department's "first ever Special Representative to Muslim Communities" and was sworn in on September 15, 2009.[195]

She describes her responsibilities as including actively listening and responding to "the concerns of Muslims in Europe, Africa, and Asia."[195]

Missile defense

In 2012 Obama promised more flexibility on missile defense after his reelection,[196] this flexibility was demonstrated the next year when Kerry offered to reduce American defenses against Chinese missiles.[197]

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Further reading

  • Bentley, Michelle and Jack Holland. Obama's Foreign Policy: Ending the War on Terror (Routledge Studies in US Foreign Policy) (2013) excerpt and text search
  • Bush, Richard C. "United States Policy towards Northeast Asia" SERI Quarterly (2013) 6#2 online re China and Korea
  • Davis, John, ed. Foreign Policy Speeches of Obama (2011)
  • Indurthy, Rathnam. "The Obama Administration's Strategy in Afghanistan," International Journal on World Peace (Sept 2011) 28#3 pp 7–52.
  • Indyk, Martin S., Kenneth G. Lieberthal and Michael E. O'Hanlon. Bending History: Barack Obama's Foreign Policy (Brookings FOCUS Book) (2012) excerpt and text search
  • Koffler, Keith Does Obama have any Foreign Policy successes? (2014), [1] general assessment by country
  • Laïdi, Zaki. Limited Achievements: Obama's Foreign Policy (2012), a view from Paris
  • Mann, James. The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power (2012)
  • O'Hanlon, Michael E., et al. Bending History: Barack Obama's Foreign Policy (Brookings FOCUS Book) (2012)
  • Rasul-Ronning, Zubaida. Conflicted Power: Obama's US Foreign and Strategic Policy in a Shifting World Order (2012) excerpt and text search
  • Sanger, David E. Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power (2012)
  • Singh, Robert, Barack Obama's Post-American Foreign Policy: The Limits of Engagement (2012) excerpt and text search
  • Watson, Robert P., ed. The Obama Presidency: A Preliminary Assessment (State University of New York Press; 2012) 443 pages; essays by scholars

External links