All week, we’ve been featuring thoughts from expert commentors on what they believe should be the Foreign Policy Priorities for the Next President.
We’ve heard from Elizabeth Jones, a retired U.S. career ambassador whose posts included Assistant Secretary for Europe and Eurasia, 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, and former NATO ambassador Robert Hunter. A contribution from two-time National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft is awaiting final approval.
While I seldom feel constrained in weighing in on such debates, I must confess some trepidation following such an august group. Nonetheless, in the true spirit of blogging, I’ll venture forth with little heed that others have superior expertise. If nothing else, I have the advantage of having read their contributions — as well as Council president Fred Kempe’s related thoughts at Deutsche Welle and (with Bob Hutchings) Foreign Policy — and knowing the outcome of the election.
President-elect Barack Obama enjoys enormous goodwill in terms of both world opinion and high hopes from European leaders and opinion makers. Even Iran and Russia were rooting for him. At the same time, however, he’s an unknown quantity.
A widely circulated Haaretz report recently quoted French President Nicolas Sarkozy as saying that Obama’s views on Iran were ‘utterly immature” and based on “formulations empty of all content.” While Sarkozy strenuously denies making the comments, we can be sure many foreign leaders — friendly or otherwise — will want to test the new president’s mettle. Four years ago, he was a mere state senator in Illinois, making him even less experienced in foreign affairs than most incoming American presidents.
Throughout the campaign, Obama showed himself to be extraordinarily cool under pressure and he has surrounded himself with sharp, seasoned advisors and shown an inclination to heed their counsel. If these tendencies continue in office, he’ll clear this hurdle easily.
Rebuild World Financial Institutions
The global financial crisis is unlikely to have been solved by noon on January 20th. It will, therefore, constitute the biggest obstacle to his administration on both the international and domestic fronts.
My own view is that there’s little Obama, or even the G-8 leaders acting in concert, can do about it. The global economy is simply too massive and has too many moving parts to quickly respond to political movement. What they can and must do, however, is work to stave off the next crisis.
He has already signaled that he’s going to move quickly on the domestic front, having already started to put together his economic team and floating names like Larry Summers for key jobs. On the international front, though, he needs to follow Ron Freeman’s advice and capitalize on the sense of urgency spawned by the current mess to revisit an international financial system built in 1944.
Redefine the War on Terrorism
Obama opposed the war in Iraq and has lambasted the Bush administration for taking its eye off the ball in Afghanistan. He’ll inherit both conflicts, however, and will have to deal with them. Fixing Afghanistan, especially, is going to be much easier said than done.
Beyond these two kinetic wars, though, is the larger question of formulating a coherent policy for dealing with international terrorism. He was mercilessly criticized from both primary opponents like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden (now his vice president-elect) and Republican opponent John McCain for promising to follow al Qaeda into Pakistan without heed to the wishes of the government there. Ironically, his predecessor has already done that with less-than-stellar results. Will he continue this policy or abandon it?
Will he, as the more leftist elements in his party urge, abandon the phraseology of “War on Terror” altogether, seeing counter-terrorism as a law enforcement and intelligence activity for which the war analogy is unhelpful? Or will he simply recalibrate the tactics?
Regardless, doing nothing is not an option. Al Qaeda is still out there, planning attacks and working to acquire more lethal weapons. If another 9/11 style attack comes, the Obama administration needs to be ready.
Recalibrate Transatlantic Relations
I’m less sanguine than my boss on a rapid improvement in the U.S. relationship with our European allies. While I agree that a fresh start is helpful given where we are now and that Obama’s temperament is more soothing than Bush’s, I tend to agree with Paul Heutching that, “Obama is an American politician, and he will govern like an American president.” Likewise, France, Germany, the UK, and the rest of our European cousins will continue to pursue their own agendas.
Still, while I don’t see a magic convergence of interests and action across the board, it’s well past time for a re-examination of the transatlantic instutions, notably NATO and the EU.
What is NATO’s mission? Is it a military defense alliance that’s incidentally a tool for institutionalizing Western values? Or vice-versa? My inclination is the former but, either way, Obama’s administration needs to work with our allies to figure this out and soon. It makes little sense to continue debating expansion and out-of-area operations until we do.
Regardless, NATO as it currently operates is dysfunctional. Major reforms in its institutions — including the incredibly thorny issues of unanimity and burden sharing — are urgenly needed.
How will NATO and the EU interact? For that matter, what precisely is the EU?
The ongoing financial crisis demonstrated, once again, that “Europe” remains an abstraction. When push comes to shove, the UK, Germany, France, Ireland, and others will naturally worry about internal impact first and how it affects the group a distant second. Is the dream of Maastrich dead or just taking longer to realize than its proponents hoped? We need to understand this before we can finally address a whole host of European — let alone transatlantic — issues.
Establish Pragmatic Realism
Obama has proven himself to be a master politician over the last four years. As a campaigner, he seems to have combined the best qualities of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. He’s more disciplined at staying on message than any of them. He has managed to do what I simply did not think possible when he embarked on his historic run: Be all things to all people. Progressives think he’s one of them while moderates and pragmatists believe — and many conservatives hope — he’s really on their side.
Soon, though, he’s going to have to actually govern. He’s already annoying liberals and encouraging moderates with his choices of John Podesta to run his transition team and Rahm Emanuel to be his chief of staff.
He’s sent many signals, too, during the campaign that, despite occasional lofty and left-leaning rhetoric, he’s a foreign policy pragmatist. While never backing away from his pledge to meet “unconditionally” with the leaders of rogue states, he’s walked it back with caveats that it’s essentially a continuation of the second term Bush administration policy of quiet behind-the-scenes diplomacy with presidential visibility only once a deal is on the table.
Similarly, while he made himself a contender for his party’s nomination, eventually beating the “inevitable” Hillary Clinton, with talk of rapid withdrawal from Iraq, he’s carefully hedged his bets by referring to “combat brigades,” a sufficiently slippery formulation that he can do what he likes without technically breaking his word. My hunch is that he winds up doing what Bush or McCain would have done: gradually continuing to draw down forces while leaving a large contingent of trainers, advisors, and logisticians for the foreseeable future.
If he governs as a pragmatist, eschewing the military adventurism of the past two administrations — sixteen years, now — he’ll go a long way to achieving all the other goals.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.