President Obama's bold announcement last week on Cuba has upended the conventional narrative that his administration, buffeted by foreign policy crises throughout 2014, had lost its ability to set the international agenda. Instead, he seems poised to make 2015 a year when he at last realizes his earliest supporters' hopes for dramatic change, and makes irreversible the new direction for America's role in the world whose promise had earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in his first months in office.
The twinned crises that dogged Obama's foreign policy team this past year, and led to declining approval ratings for the president's conduct of foreign affairs, have certainly not gone away. Russian president Vladimir Putin's challenge to Ukraine after it slipped out of his orbit in February, and the metastasis of the international jihad against Syria's suffocating regime into a cross-border "Islamic State," remain to be resolved.
But the sanctions regime targeting Russia's elites that Obama forged with Europe has proved remarkably successful, in tandem with the fortuitous crash in oil prices, in imposing costs on Putin's aggressiveness. And the carefully calibrated American efforts to marshal an international coalition to contain and reverse ISIL's explosion into Iraq and to encourage political transition there are producing successes.
The prospects are brightening for a slow-motion end to both crises in 2015. The run on the ruble appears to be chastening Putin, one of the world's most reviled leaders in global opinion surveys even before the Ukraine crisis. The United Nations mediator Staffan DeMistura is finding growing receptiveness to prospective ceasefires among the belligerents in Syria's civil war, which could end the slaughter and start a political transition as ISIL begins to buckle.
Turning the corner on these two crises, or at least containing them, has liberated Obama to reclaim the initiative on the world stage. The Cuba opening will not transform global power relations as did Jimmy Carter's announcement of diplomatic relations with Beijing 36 years before (almost to the very day!). But it disinfects a longstanding abscess in U.S. relations with Latin America and ends an annual embarrassment at the United Nations, where the entire international community denounces the folly of Washington's Cuba embargo by votes of 188 to 2.
In denouncing Obama's Cuba initiative, Republican political figures have planted themselves firmly in the past, just as they had denounced diplomatic ties with China and the Panama Canal treaty. They have done the same with Obama's other major break with Washington's paralysis this fall: the sweeping executive orders tightening enforcement of environmental emissions, which have proved the crucial shock therapy to put languishing climate change negotiations back on track.
From his first days in office, Obama identified climate change as an urgent priority. It is no accident that he combined his Nobel lecture in Oslo in 2009 with a stop in Copenhagen to try personally to keep foundering negotiations alive. For five years he felt constrained by congressional conservatives' success in blocking climate legislation. His resort to executive orders has quickly paid off in a November accord bringing China aboard, the world's other top greenhouse gas emitter, and in broad agreement at U.N. negotiations that ended in Lima last week.
Prospects now look much brighter for a breakthrough pact emerging from the final round of negotiations scheduled for Paris next fall. Moreover, U.S. public opinion, after a dip following the 2008 economic meltdown, has congealed behind the need to halt global warming. Obama is effectively daring any Republican challenger to try to reverse the climate course he hopes to enshrine in 2015 in a global pact of universal reach.
Yet another breakthrough after Cuba that is likely to be consummated in the coming year is with Iran. Iranian president Hassan Rowhani is as motivated as Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, to seal a nuclear deal that can clear the decks for formal diplomatic relations. Beyond that, closer cooperation will depend on whether Rowhani's allies in Tehran can outmaneuver entrenched fanatics in Iran's political and security apparatus. Still, as with Cuba, it is hard to see how a Republican successor to Obama could sever diplomatic relations with Iran once they have been restored.
Of course, the main driver of Washington militancy against any deal with Iran has been the intensely nationalist government of Binyamin Netanyahu in Israel. Yet Israeli politics themselves are in flux, and as 2014 draws to its end there appears to be a real chance that Knesset elections at winter's end may produce a new political constellation, one that can resume the negotiating track with the Palestinians that former prime minister Ehud Olmert insists was on the brink of success six years ago.
An Israeli-Palestinian peace accord would of course be the big megillah, one that would crown Obama's last two years. It is something in which Kerry invested major effort with difficult partners after becoming secretary of state, and in which he would readily reengage with a new Israeli government. Perhaps concerns about a European economic noose tightening around the West Bank settlement project will factor in as well. Whether change becomes possible is in Israeli voters'--and Palestinians'--hands, though, not Washington's.
So Cuba will almost certainly prove to be just the first of several breakthroughs that Obama can make on the global stage in 2015. Climate change and Iran are likely to follow. More uncertainly, and more gradually, progress in restoring Ukraine's political integrity and moving Syria to a nonviolent political transition is certainly possible.
And the biggest, most elusive prize of all, peace in the Holy Land, is not yet inconceivable for the supposed "lame duck" Barack Obama.