(This piece originally appeared on Russia Beyond the Headlines)
It’s over. The long and expensive, yet highly entertaining political show called the American presidential election campaign came to an end in the early hours of Nov. 7. By winning 50 percent of the popular vote nationwide and beating his Republican opponent, former governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney, in eight of nine of the so-called swing states, the incumbent president Barack Obama was re-elected for a second term.
The in-depth analysis of the factors leading to Obama’s victory will keep pundits busy for the months to come. Some will argue that Obama was helped by Hurricane Sandy, which seemed to stop the momentum the Romney campaign acquired coming out of the presidential debates. Others will point to the release, just four days before the election, of the Labor Department’s unemployment report suggesting that the U.S. economy was on track to recovery, an argument the Obama administration has been making for the past couple of years. And there obviously will be those insisting that by being unable to provide substance to his job creation plan—and by failing to emotionally connect with the voters—Romney never had a real chance to win.
Curiously, while the Americans found themselves almost equally split between Obama and Romney, the rest of the world was almost openly cheering for the former. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. No one can doubt that as a mainstream U.S. politician, Obama puts American national interests above all other considerations. Yet, on many occasions he demonstrated a willingness to at least consider national interests of others countries, as long as they didn’t contradict America’s. This provides a clear contrast to Romney, who proudly promised to “never apologize” for U.S. actions and whose declared rules of engagement with other countries, with an exception of Israel, could be summarized by a popular idiom “my way or the highway.” For this reason alone, many foreign leaders would consider Obama as a more trustworthy and reliable interlocutor.
The foreign policy of the new Obama administration is unlikely to change in any profound way; yet, it would be premature to say that there won’t be any changes at all. Obama is a “domestic” president and as many other U.S. presidents with ambitious domestic agenda, he has little passion for global issues. In such circumstances, the U.S. foreign policy is often hijacked by the secretary of state (or sometimes by the National Security Advisor); there is every reason to believe that in the past two years, it’s been Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, not the president himself, who was defining U.S. international priorities.
Clinton is going to step down in January, and until the identity of her replacement becomes known, the precise contours of the U.S. foreign policies will remain somewhat blurry. The leading candidate to succeed Clinton appears to be Sen. John Kerry, an experienced and competent chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. With Kerry at the helm of the Department of State, one can expect a renewed U.S. involvement in “grand projects,” such as the peace process in the Middle East. At the same time, an emphasis on the global humanitarian issues, championed by Clinton, may subside.
Moscow welcomed Obama’s re-election. And it’s not because he has a lot of fans among the Russian political class. Russia’s policies toward the U.S. are perennially reactive: Moscow never takes the lead in its relations with Washington; rather, it prefers to respond to what Washington throws at it, be it a cold wind of confrontation blown by the Bush administration or a sunny “reset” offered by President Obama. In the eyes of the Russian leadership, Obama is a known quality, and the Kremlin finds it much more convenient to resume the already established relationship rather than spend the time and effort for developing a new one.
Although there seems to be a consensus among the Russian foreign policy establishment that the “reset” is dead, no attempts have been made so far to put forward a proactive, pro-Russian agenda for the Moscow-Washington dialog, at least at the official level. Apparently, the Kremlin is going to take a wait-and-see approach in anticipation of a new paradigm for U.S.-Russia relations emerging from the White House—and then assume the comfortable position of being able to either accept or reject this paradigm. While such an approach may well suit the lifestyle of Russian foreign policy apparatchiks, it’s hard to see how it will advance Russia’s vital national interests.