Obama’s Most Overlooked Foreign Policy Accomplishment In Year One: Response To Global Economic Crisis

Our guest blogger is Brian Katulis, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

The one-year anniversary of President Obama’s inauguration is leading to the usual spate of analyses of Obama’s foreign policy record. Time magazine already had this brief rundown, Helene Cooper at the New York Times looked more prospectively with a focus on the politics of national security, and Foreign Policy magazine’s latest cover suggests similarities between the Obama and Carter administrations.

But one foreign policy issue the Obama administration had to deal with that hasn’t received nearly enough attention is how it led the global response to the international economic crisis.

Nearly a year ago, the Annual Threat Assessment delivered by Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair put the global economic crisis at the top of the threats facing the country: “The primary near-term security concern of the United States is the global economic crisis and its geopolitical implications.”


The first year analyses on Obama’s foreign policy have focused primarily on traditional security concerns and largely ignored the diplomacy tied to the unprecedented economic interventions that were globally coordinated in 2009 — what amounted to the quickest and largest governmental response to the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. This wasn’t a repeat of previous international crises like the Asian financial crisis in 1998; the problem was more widespread and interlinked, and responding to the crisis took up a lot of time and attention.

The mix of coordinated fiscal and monetary policy moves throughout 2009 haven’t made everything better at home or abroad — Americans are still hurting with unemployment hovering around 10 percent, and many of the gains in the fight against global poverty made in recent years were lost during the global economic crisis of 2008–2009.

But it could have been much worse had the United States not led through forums like the G-20 meetings in London in April and Pittsburgh in September, and through the quiet diplomatic and economic coordination efforts. For example, the Obama administration has led bilateral efforts like the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue and coordinated economic support to critical countries like Pakistan, which narrowly escaped a liquidity crisis.

The shift in tone from the Bush administration towards one of greater engagement and international partnership, exemplified by decisions on missile defense and Afghanistan, were important markers in foreign policy –- but we can’t forget that dealing with the economic mess left behind by the Bush administration topped the agenda at home and abroad.