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International Conditions May Be Ripe for Improvement

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Writing for The Atlantic, Robert D. Kaplan thinks Barack Obama has made a good decision by choosing political rival Hillary Clinton to be Secretary of State. But Kaplan foresees success for Obama not just because of the team he’s assembled but because international conditions are favorable for success:

[T]he real reason that Obama and Clinton might enjoy success I something that goes barely mentioned in the media. Obama and Clinton are buying into a bottomed-out market vis-a-vis America’s position in the world. It is as if they will be buying stock after the market has crashed, and just at the point when a number of factors are already set in motion for a recovery. For President George W. Bush did not just damage America’s position in the world, he has also, over the past two years, quietly repositioned himself as a realist in foreign policy, and that, coupled with a bold new strategy in Iraq, known as the “surge,” has poised America for a diplomatic rebound, which the next administration will get the credit for carrying out.

Kaplan is right that Bush has quietly moved away from the ideological swamp of neo-conservative foreign policy and has moved towards a more realist approach. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is an excellent example of this new pragmatism. That’s why Obama is keeping Gates on board.

Kaplan points out a number of ways our advisories and tentative allies are being softened up and could be ready to have a more productive relationship with the U.S. From successful background maneuvers by Bush to plummeting oil prices to Obama’s own soaring popularity, conditions are favorable for a rebound in American prestige and positive influence.

Nevertheless, we can’t assume things will get better just because conditions have fallen to such a low point. The world is still a huge mess with countries like Russia, Iran and Venezuela positioning themselves as anti-American regional powers while China looks ready to become a global power. And that’s leaving out the problems surrounding Pakistan, North Korea, The Sudan, Syria and elsewhere.

Foreign policy is often the art of choosing the least bad choice, of reaching for the kinda bad to prevent the really bad. It’d be foolish to assume Obama can heal all the ills. We’ll be fortunate if he can just stitch up the worst of the bleeders.

But Kaplan is right that the new administration is starting with the bar set pretty low. I think most people will consider Obama’s foreign policy a failure if he doesn’t noticeably improve matters.