Not a bad month on foreign policy, either

NOT A BAD MONTH ON FOREIGN POLICY, EITHER…. With a successful lame-duck session having wrapped up, and the year coming to an end, there’s been plenty of recent talk about President Obama’s legislative victories. David Ignatius has a related assessment today, focusing entirely on foreign policy.

Ignatius notes that last month’s midterm elections sparked “stage whispers” among world leaders about “the erosion of American power, and of Obama as a weak and inattentive president.” There are still concerns, of course, but the column notes the White House’s recent moves have “allowed Obama to show some backbone, a quality that Europeans, in particular, feared was missing.”

The list begins with the president’s trip to India in November, when he was still reeling from the Democrats’ midterm defeat. That cast an aura of failure over the trip, but in retrospect it looks a bit more positive: In New Delhi, Obama managed to strengthen ties with India without upsetting Pakistan, a neat trick.

Next came South Korea. Although Obama was drubbed for not getting a free-trade deal before his arrival, his refusal to make last-minute concessions to Seoul made the final deal reached in December much better, and won it bipartisan support. It’s arguably the most important free-trade pact since NAFTA.

A third success was the Lisbon summit in late November…. The December Af-Pak review, the fourth item on the list, followed on the Lisbon frame…. Then came the three big theatrical events in December: the formation of an Iraqi government; the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell”; and ratification of the New START treaty with Russia. In all three, Obama succeeded by working closely with his diplomatic and military advisers, especially Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Finally, and least noticed, was the test with North Korea. While saying little in public, the administration mobilized for the possibility of war if North Korea continued its provocations. Obama cautioned Chinese President Hu Jintao in a phone call three weeks ago that because North Korea is a nuclear nation, its recklessness threatens the United States. The White House thinks the Chinese got the message — and warned Pyongyang.

We talked a bit about this several months ago, but a fascinating dynamic frequently plays out in international affairs: global players base their U.S. interactions, at least in part, on their perceptions of presidential standing. If the American head of state is perceived as weak — faltering domestic support, stalled legislative agenda — friend and foe alike will take those cues seriously. If the chief executive is perceived as strong, that matters just as much.

There’s been a fair amount of scuttlebutt lately about a perceived presidential “comeback,” thanks to a string of year-end victories. But while these breakthroughs may give Obama a modest bump in the polls, it also gives him a stronger hand when dealing foreign friends and foes.

When it comes to the administration’s foreign policy agenda, that’s obviously a good thing.