In a special live program of the BBC’s The World Tonight with Robin Lustig, also broadcast around the world to more than 40 million people on the BBC World Service, leading foreign policy experts from the Carnegie Endowment assessed President Obama's first year in office and the chief challenges that lie ahead.

Carnegie’s Jessica Mathews, Robert Kagan, Douglas Paal, and Paul Salem joined former Afghan finance minister and presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani and the BBC’s Robin Lustig to discuss the significant challenges still facing the president, from China and non-proliferation to Afghanistan and Yemen.

Continuity with Bush Administration Policies

Mathews noted that while Obama’s foreign policy has generally marked a sweeping shift in style and content from the Bush years, the Obama administration has embraced some Bush policies.

  • China: Paal observed that Obama has built on the generally positive foundation that Bush left, opening up three new areas for cooperation: managing the financial crisis, global climate change, and preventing a nuclear Iran. The first was a success, the second fell short, and the third remains a matter of contention between China and the United States.
  •  Africa: Africa does not appear to be high on Obama’s list of priorities, given the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the global financial crisis, but all panelists agreed that he has not fundamentally changed U.S. policy concerning the region.

Changes to Bush Policies

Kagan saw less overall change in U.S. foreign policy thus far than Mathews had, but acknowledged that there existed areas of significant divergence between the Bush and Obama administrations.

  • Non-proliferation: Obama is making new steps towards achieving nuclear zero, an imperative expressed in his Prague speech in the spring of 2009.
  •  Iran: Obama’s open approach to Iran contrasts sharply with the harsh “axis of evil” rhetoric used during the Bush years. Mathews and Salem believed that this change has provided Iranian opposition groups with a greater ability to speak out against the regime. Kagan contended that a move toward a more legitimate and democratic government in Iran is ultimately more important than dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Upcoming Challenges

Obama has inherited the toughest international inbox of any President since Truman, claimed Mathews. Panelists discussed some of the challenges facing the Obama administration:

  • Israel-Palestine: When Obama demanded that the Israelis end hostilities and they did not comply, Obama backed down. Mathews described that decision as a mistake. Salem agreed that a new approach is needed to restart the peace process, and suggested incorporating the following three elements:
    1. A renewed commitment to settle the conflict utilizing economic and security resources.
    2. Significantly helping the Palestinian Authority improve its institutional capacity, economic situation, and the security situation on the West Bank.
    3. Restarting full peace talks on final status agreements between the Israelis and Palestinians, and including other members of the international community in those talks. “This needs to be big or it is not going to work at all,” Salem said.

  • Af-Pak: While there is significant debate as to the likely efficacy of the new military strategy outlined in December 2009, there remain open questions about the best political and economic strategies to use in Afghanistan and Pakistan. These crucial questions must be reconciled, said Ghani. Of the panelists, Kagan was the most optimistic about the possible success of military engagement in Afghanistan, but he conceded that a U.S. military presence would not solve the problems in Pakistan.
  • Yemen: While the 2009 Christmas bombing focused international attention on Yemen, the U.S. government has been involved in that area for some time, said Salem. Although he and Mathews believed that Yemen can still be helped, it, like other failing or failed states, poses a grave danger to America’s national security.

Grading the President

Panelists were asked to grade Obama on his first year on a 100-point scale.

  • On his policy toward the Middle East, Salem gave Obama a 75.
  • On his policy toward China and East Asia, Paal gave Obama 85.
  • On his overall policy, excluding Afghanistan, Mathews gave an 85-90. Mathews accorded extra weight for his strong leadership in response to the global financial crisis.
  • According to Kagan, one year is too little time to thoroughly judge an administration’s blooming foreign policy. Preferring to use a pass/fail system, he gave Obama a pass.