The media has anointed Barack Obama the winner of the most recent and final presidential debate devoted entirely to foreign policy issues. Yet, even though foreign affairs will feature little in the next few weeks, the rest of the world will take stock of Obama's presidency. What impact has he had on America's global standing, and where has he left his nation's reputation, its position amidst shifting global power balances, and the crisis with the debate's most mentioned country, Iran?
According to a survey by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), there is a weariness of President Obama's record, and anticipation of a future dominated by realist than idealist strands in US foreign policy.
Obama began his presidency with high expectations that he would restore America's global reputation, uniquely tarnished in the years after 2001, but he has plainly failed to meet these hopes. This is apparent when assessing his dealing with the Muslim world: just 28% of the RUSI survey believe that President Obama has improved relations with the Middle East and North Africa, versus 34% who say he has worsened relations and 32% who say he has made little or no difference.
Given that these responses were made soon after the anti-American protests around the controversial 'Innocence of Muslims' film, the lukewarm response of RUSI's respondents is unsurprising. But has anti-Americanism receded since Obama took office? It is difficult to ascertain whether the President's handling of the Arab Spring has contributed to the mixed assessment of his performance in the region.
The story is only slightly better with Russia - 54% consider that President Obama's relations with Moscow have not changed since 2009, indicating that the "reset" policy, aimed at conciliating Russian concerns about missile defense and other issues, has fizzled.
These assessments tell us how many perceive Obama administration more interested in establishing robust relations with emerging powers, rather than with those with long and complicated relationships with the United States. Certainly there is a perception that Obama's focus is towards other BRIC countries, in particular Brazil and India. As with the stated 'pivot to Asia', these two countries will become increasingly important to the United States in the next four years. The bilaterial relationship with China, of course, will remain the single most important for the US, particularly as tensions in Asia over disputed islands grow.
Further afield, President Obama seems to have done better in his counter-terrorism efforts. 69% of the survey believes that Al-Qa'ida has grown weaker since 2009. This may well be due to the focus the Obama Administration placed in going after the organisation's leaders, culminating in the killing of Osama bin Laden and other senior figures such as the Yemeni Anwar al-Awlaki. While the prosecution of this strategy has relied greatly on drone strikes, the use of this tool may well have contributed to the very anti-Americanism which Obama pledged to reduce.
Perhaps the most striking findings concern Iran, and it's worth underlining that RUSI's poll respondents are senior members of the defence and security community. The country was described by Mitt Romney as the greatest national security threat to the United States (even though he stated earlier it was Russia), and both candidates, despite their tactical differences, promised to stop a nuclear-armed Iran by all means that would prove necessary, including military.
For RUSI's defence and security community, the military option is less appealing. That mantra that emerges is a commitment to smart power, not hard power. 59% opposed bombing enrichment and other facilities thought to be related to an Iranian weapons programme, while 91% opposed a ground invasion of Iran altogether. There is also opposition to lethal action that assassinates Iranian leaders or scientists working on the programme. Nevertheless, there is widespread support for punitive measures to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb. 80% of respondents support the ongoing sanctions regime against Iran, while 77 per cent support the use of cyber warfare to undermine Iran's nuclear programme.
Despite concerns about his administration in the backdrop of challenging global events, experts are overwhelmingly positive that America will continue to be the world's leading power in 2016. Regardless of who the occupant of the White House is in 2013, the challenge will be to manage and shape the rapid rise of emerging nations quickly catching up with the United States.
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