With Barack Obama being returned to the White House, it’s worth considering what his key foreign policy challenges will be during the second term. I’ve outlined a few areas I think will dominate his thinking over the next four years.

1. Afghanistan and Pakistan

Obama has committed to withdrawing American forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. This will be a far from smooth transition. As the number of US forces declines, expect to see a resurgence of the Taliban, greater instability across the country, and the accelerated erosion of Hamid Karzai’s authority. American frustrations will also heighten if the pace of ‘green on blue’ attacks (where Afghan National Security Force soldiers kill their NATO allies) continues growing at the rate it has in recent months.

Difficulties with Pakistan will also persist. As American influence in Afghanistan wanes, Islamabad is more than likely to step up its traditional support for the Afghan Taliban to achieve what it calls ‘strategic depth’ against India. Pakistan is also due to have parliamentary elections in three months and most of the frontrunners are campaigning on highly anti-American platforms. Any new administration will likely seek to renegotiate the terms of Obama’s highly prized drone programme which operates in Pakistan’s western territories.

2. North Africa

The political contours of last year’s uprisings are still far from settled. Islamists have been installed in Egypt and Tunisia while a more temperate administration is governing in Libya. There are few conclusions that can be drawn from this. Lawlessness in much of Libya and surrounding countries has resulted in the rise of armed factions whose ambitions are, as yet, still unclear. The murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi last September reveals the extent to which these groups pose a serious and ongoing threat to American interests in the region.

While al-Qaeda is struggling in AfPak (and is somewhat confined in Yemen), the number of armed Islamist groups in Africa has also proliferated following last year’s uprisings. Jihadists in Mali now control an area larger than the size of France. Meanwhile, groups coming from Nigeria to the Horn of Africa are able to exploit the vacuum left by the Arab Spring. These unintended consequences of the Arab Spring are sure to consume much of Obama’s time.

3. Iran

It is now beyond dispute that Iran is seeking to develop a nuclear arsenal. What remains is how to diminish the threat posed by Ahmadinejad’s administration. Sanctions are clearly beginning to bite, with the normally inert mercantile classes in Tehran growing increasingly uneasy, but such an approach is unlikely to halt Iranian nuclear ambitions.

The Israelis will press Obama hard to impose red lines, while Washington will worry about the prospect of Netanyahu deciding to unilaterally attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. The prospect of this remains remote – not least because Israel lacks the military capability needed to achieve its goals if acting alone – but don’t expect that to pare Netanyahu’s rhetoric. As both sides continue to sabre-rattle, Obama will be expected to step in and offer leadership.

4. The Arab-Israeli conflict

As American Presidents in their second term start to dream of their legacy, there are few things that excite them more than the idea of resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. Obama will be tempted by the prospect too, but is unlikely to drive the peace process forward in a meaningful way. Deeply distrusted by Israelis and Palestinians his administration lacks any original thinking about how to bring both sides to the table. The stalemate will continue.

5. Syria

There is little doubt Obama let Syria burn while concentrating on his re-election. The White House simply wasn’t prepared to intervene and risk a confrontation that would comprise the election. Now that the election is over, expect to see greater engagement with the armed factions operating inside the country – and a diminished role for the Syrian National Council which is mostly exiled and not on the ground.

Indeed, it is hardly surprising that within hours of Obama’s re-election William Hague announced the British government will start talking to the armed opposition. Turkey, too, has hardened its position over the last 24 hours, deploying more sophisticated weapons along its border and calling for a greater use of force against Assad. Diplomatic solutions are still being explored with behind-the-scenes offers of safe passage offered to Assad and his family, but if the bloodshed continues then calls for a No Fly Zone will become irresistible.

6. China

The world’s second largest economy is currently in the process of transitioning power to a new generation of leaders. Anointed in the Great Hall of the People during the Communist Party Congress, it was confirmed that Xi Jinping will shortly be installed as China’s next President. Yet little is known of his personal views and Obama is left guessing whether Jinping’s China will present itself as a friend or foe.

Whatever path it pursues, Beijing’s growing economic clout coupled with its expansion – in both political and economic terms – into Central Africa and South Asia, means America will be paying close attention to Jinping’s policies.

7. Russia

Putin is back in the Kremlin but with diminished powers. Unpopular at home, he is unlikely to be as assertive abroad as he would like. Instead, Russian power will be limited to regional affairs which the Americans are likely to watch closely but will not be immediately affected by. Obama is less concerned with Russia than his counterparts, seeking gentle engagement and compromise where appropriate.

8. Managing the global economy

In many respects this was the Republicans’ election to lose. Few incumbents have successfully clung to power with soaring unemployment and a still badly bruised economy. This will take centre stage in Obama’s second term, with the global fallout from the economic crisis continuing to influence his thinking. Expect the White House to keep a watching brief on Europe’s debt crisis and potential disintegration of the Eurozone. They’ll also be keeping a close eye on instability in the Gulf and North Africa which could affect oil prices, imperilling the prospect of economic growth.

Tags: Barack Obama, Foreign Policy, US politics