Will yesterday’s passage of health-care reform give a positive jolt to U.S. foreign policy? Is Obama the new “comeback kid,” with new clout at home and a more formidable hand to play abroad? Will he now pivot from domestic affairs to foreign policy and achieve a dazzling set of diplomatic victories? My answers: no, no, and no.
As others have noted before, journalists and commentators find it easy to rely on an essentially narrative style of analysis. It’s easy to tell a story largely in terms of day-to-day events and process, and to frame it all in terms of the rise or fall of different personalities. First Obama can do no wrong, then he’s a failed president, then suddenly he bounces back and is a transformational figure once again. Or Rahm is in, then he’s out, then’s he bigger than ever. Pelosi is dismissed, then she’s hated, then she’s ineffectual, and then suddenly she’s vindicated and revered. Analyzing politics in this way is certainly exciting, but it's not very informative. It also creates the sense that political fortunes are always swinging wildly back and forth, instead of stepping back and looking for the larger structural forces that are shaping events and constraining choices.
My sense is that yesterday’s House vote isn’t going to translate into a lot of new political clout, especially when it comes to foreign policy. Passing the health-care bill may mean that Obama doesn’t need coddle quite as many congressmen on foreign-policy issues they might care strongly about (such as trade policy or the Middle East), and that might give him a bit more flexibility to do what’s in the national interest. But overall, I don’t think yesterday’s vote in the House will have much impact at all.
To begin with, Obama’s No. 1 concern still has to be the U.S. economy. The Democrats are going to lose seats in the midterm elections, which will make pushing domestic reform efforts much harder. It might be tempting to focus on foreign policy, therefore, except that everyone knows Obama’s re-election hinges largely on getting Americans back to work. If the economy and especially employment turn around by 2011 he’s golden; if it doesn’t, he’s in trouble.
More importantly, there isn’t a lot of low-hanging fruit in foreign policy. He might get an arms-control agreement with Russia, but there aren’t a lot of votes in that and there’s no way he’ll get a comprehensive test-ban treaty through the post-2010 Senate. Passing health care at home won’t make Iran more cooperative, make sanctions more effective, or make preventive war more appealing, so that issue will continue to fester. Yesterday’s vote doesn’t change anything in Iraq; it is their domestic politics that matters, not ours. I’d say much the same thing about Afghanistan, though Obama will face another hard choice when the 18-month deadline for his “surge” is up in the summer of 2011.
Passing a health-care bill isn’t going to affect America’s increasingly fractious relationship with China, cause Osama bin Laden to surrender, or lead North Korea to embrace market reforms, hold elections, and give up its nuclear weapons. And somehow I don’t think those drug lords at war with the Mexican government are going to go out of business because 32 million uninsured Americans are about to get coverage. And even if Obama does seize the moment to push Middle East peace talks -- a risky step in an election year -- only a cock-eyed optimist would expect a deal in short order.
So I’d ignore any stories you see about how this "historic legislative victory" gives the president new clout, greater momentum, or an enhanced ability to advance his foreign-policy agenda. Today’s euphoria will pass quickly, opponents at home will regroup, and enemies abroad don’t care. Bottom line: Obama's foreign-policy in box will look about the same at the end of the first term as it did when he took office.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.