Foreign policy is really hard; that’s the thing to keep in mind when reading this report card for U.S. foreign policy in 2013. Most countries have more foreign policy disappointments than successes (maybe the one big exception this year was Russia) and the United States, which has the most assertive foreign policy in the world, was certainly no exception.
I’m grading based on the degree to which the administration did or did not accomplish its own goals, rather than on the merits of those goals themselves or the general benevolence of U.S. foreign policy.
Based on these subjective grades, the U.S. foreign policy grade point average comes out to 2.0 exactly – a solid C, which sounds about right.
The U.S. has mostly succeeded at disengaging from the war and heading toward the 2014 troop drawdown; it hasn’t exactly patched things up with Pakistan, but relations are not as terrible as they’ve been in previous years.
The U.S. balancing act always looked difficult to the point of near-impossibility: hem in China’s rise by making friends with its neighbors, but without giving Beijing an excuse to push back; get China to relax the currency restrictions that hurt American exports; foster China’s economic growth but keep it in check militarily; keep China’s territorial disputes from spiraling out of control, but still exploit them to assert the United States as a keeper of East Asian stability; push back on Chinese cyber espionage, and most difficult of all, maintain friendly relations with Beijing. Even with the U.S. successes in reining in China, June’s summit between Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping in California seemed to go well.
There’s no getting around it: the U.S. flunked on Egypt by every conceivable metric. Here are the three things it wanted to do this year: Prevent the Egyptian military from staging a coup, maintain a positive relationship with the military and try to keep Egypt on some sort of post-revolutionary path toward liberal democracy. It failed spectacularly on the first and third of those goals and has jeopardized the second.
The temporary deal with Iran over its nuclear program is certainly the biggest headline success of U.S. foreign policy this year. As well it should be! The administration has been working toward this point pretty much since Obama came into office. Still, the deal is only temporary, Congress is working to scuttle it by passing new sanctions, Iranian leaders could renege (if they haven’t already), etc.
Snowden blowback: D-minus
The damage from Snowden’s revelations about NSA snooping was widespread, causing real damage for U.S. diplomacy around the world but especially in Europe and Latin America, both regions that have always bristled under U.S. dominance.
So why not a failing grade? Believe it or not, this could have been worse. The outrage was deep in many parts of the world, but not as much in others. Indian leaders defended the NSA programs. In China, though many people, especially Hong Kongers, expressed solidarity with Snowden, the incident had very little impact on U.S.-China relations.
Yes, the U.S. succeeded in striking an important deal for removing Syrian leader Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons. Outside of the chemical weapons deal, though, U.S. policy on Syria has seen failures on nearly every front.
• Fisher anchors WorldViews, the Washington Post’s foreign news blog.