US & Canada

Obama's world image tarnished - but policies will remain

Barack Obama addresses the UN, 23 September 2010
Image caption Barack Obama may now focus on the economy over other world affairs

The mid-term congressional elections have certainly weakened US President Barack Obama domestically, and to an extent he has also been weakened internationally.

Peoples and governments around the world might think that if he cannot impress his own people, then he cannot impress them either. His reception at the G20 meeting in South Korea next week will be watched closely.

Foreign policy played almost no role in these elections and little immediate change is expected, though some big decisions lie ahead.

In Afghanistan - how fast should Mr Obama withdraw troops? In the Middle East - does he give up on peace talks? These results have not weakened backing for Israel in the US Congress, and its supporters will not want the administration to exert undue pressure on it.

However, the American economic weakness that largely caused these election results might encourage Mr Obama to be more active in world economic affairs - stepping up criticism of China over its currency, for example.

Mr Obama has two more years in office and time to turn things round if the economy improves, so that is likely to be his priority.

Treaty ratifications

One key result is that, while the Republicans swept the House of Representatives, the president's fellow Democrats held on to the Senate, and this has important implications.

It means there is still a chance of getting two key treaties ratified - the Senate has to approve all American treaties. The first is the new strategic arms treaty with Russia, known as New Start.

The foreign relations committee that examined it has agreed that it should be ratified, but it has since got stuck. The committee's chairman Senator John Kerry said recently: "Now it is time for the full Senate to... approve New Start without delay."

The Russians have been more co-operative over recent months - for example, cancelling the sale to Iran of an anti-missile system that fell foul of UN sanctions which the Russians themselves supported. If Start is seriously stuck, Russia too might feel the need to hold back from co-operating on other issues.

The other treaty is the comprehensive ban on nuclear testing. The senate rejected this in 1999 but President Obama promised to press for it again. Its ratification depends on there being confidence that the US nuclear warhead stockpile can be safely and effectively maintained without test detonations. This week's agreement between Britain and France to jointly develop and carry out non-explosive tests might be a spur to US efforts to do the same.

Divert attention?

One piece of legislation which President Obama hoped for will take a tumble - a climate bill aimed at reducing carbon emissions by taxing them. Republicans will not have this.

His hopes of closing Guantanamo Bay have also taken a knock as he will need congressional funding to do this.

It is sometimes feared that if a leader is under pressure at home then he or she will seek a foreign adventure to divert attention. President Bill Clinton was, rightly or wrongly, accused by some of launching an attacks in Afghanistan and Sudan during the Monica Lewinsky crisis.

However, Barack Obama is not seen around the world as a president who would do this.

He does face a continuing problem over Iran but that has stopped just short of a crisis, as despite suspicions about Iran's intentions, it has not produced a nuclear weapon.

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk

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