November 2, 2008
Foreign Policy Priorities for the Next President

While the public opinion polls have told us for weeks that Barack Obama is likely to win the longest presidential contest in American history, the voters will finally decide once and for all tomorrow.

  Regardless of whether expectations are confirmed or John McCain pulls off the most dramatic upset since Harry Truman's defeat of Thomas Dewey sixty years ago, the United States will begin its shift to the post-Bush era immediately and the new president will take office on January 20.

Presidential candidates set out broad themes during their campaign, highlighting policies and priorities that they are passionate about and which they believe will appeal to the electorate.  Obama is, as are most presidential hopefuls, mostly interested in domestic policy while McCain sees himself as a foreign affairs and national security leader.   Inevitably, however, the next president will, as have all their predecessors, be largely hostage to unfolding events and confounded by political realities, institutional checks and balances, and a crafty opposition party.

Nonetheless, presidents must have an agenda and do what they can to shape events rather than reacting to them.   Pundits and greybeards have weighed in with advice.  

For example, Chris Patten, former EU commissioner for external relations and the last British governor of Hong Kong, argues that "the United States remains the world's only superpower, the only nation that matters in every part of the globe, the only country capable of mobilizing international action to tackle global problems."  He offers several broad priorities. He believes "The new president's first task will be to return America's economic competitiveness and self-confidence" but cautions that "new American president would do well to remember the disastrous consequences of protectionism in the 1920s and 1930s."  Leading reform of the United Nations is high on the agenda and "a necessary if not sufficient condition for change is America's commitment to and leadership of the process. Forget the distraction of trying to create an alternative to the U.N. — the so-called League of Democracies. It won't work." Beyond that, he cites nuclear nonproliferation, "boosting energy efficiency and developing clean technologies," and improving relations with China.

NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof says simply that the United States "must rejoin the world," contending that Bush's "Cowboy diplomacy has 'defriended' the United States.  He turned a superpower into a rogue country."    Kristoff offers several steps toward this end including suggesting that the next president "not only close Guantánamo prison but also turn it into an international center for research on tropical diseases that afflict poor countries." Additionally, he should "start a Truth Commission to investigate torture and other abuses during the 'war on terror.'" Beyond that, "We also have to pay far more attention to public diplomacy and outreach" including "a vigorous effort for peace in the Middle East" and a commitment to "negotiating with odious countries."

The Atlantic Council have asked several of its friends and leaders to weigh in on the question, too.  The first installment is by Elizabeth Jones, a retired U.S. career ambassador whose posts included Assistant Secretary for Europe and Eurasia.   Over the course of the week, we'll feature the thoughts of former Saloman Smith Barney managing director Ronald Freeman, Woodrow Wilson School Dean Anne-Marie Slaughter, former Undersecretary of Defense Walter Slocombe, former RAND Europe president and NSC official David Gompert, former NATO ambassador Robert Hunter, and two-time National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft.   Even your humble managing editor joins the fray.

For good measure, I should note that the candidates have weighed in on the matter, too.  Today's Wall Street Journal features entries from both candidates (or, at least, editorials published under their signature.  

In "The Change We Need," Barack Obama focuses almost entirely on domestic issues, especially the economy.  His only nod to foreign policy is his vow that "I'll end the Iraq war responsibly so we stop spending $10 billion a month in Iraq while it sits on a huge surplus."

In "What We're Fighting For," John McCain mostly talks about responding to the financial crisis but also weighs in on energy policy, promising to "end three decades of failed energy policies; stop sending $700 billion to countries that oppose American values and finance our enemies; and drill for oil and natural gas" and "strengthen incentives for all energy alternatives -- nuclear, clean coal, wind, solar and tide."  He also pledges "I won't make it harder to sell our goods overseas and kill more jobs. I will open new markets to goods made in America and make sure our trade is free and fair."  On the national security front, he pledges to continue our commitment to Iraq, to double down on Afghanistan, and to close Guantánamo.  On the diplomatic front, he pledges to follow George Shultz' edict of tending to our relationships abroad like a garden but, at the same time, "I will not offer up unconditional summit meetings with dangerous dictators, nor will I foreclose diplomatic tools that serve our interests. I will respect our trade agreements with our allies, not unilaterally renounce them."

Regardless of priorities and emphases, the Financial Times editors are certainly right that the president-elect must work very closely with the Bush administration to achieve a smooth transition.  The world won't stop spinning while the new guy settles in.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. Debate word cloud from Flickr user EricaJoy, used under Creative Commons license.

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