The most pressing second term issue will be dealing with Iran’s nuclear program.
Campaign rhetoric aside, the administration has in fact mobilized far-reaching multilateral sanctions that are having a progressively more dramatic effect on Iran’s economy. That strong international consensus can now be balanced by a renewed focus on reaching agreement acceptable to both sides - perhaps involving regional power mediation by Turkey, and returning to the principles Turkey and Brazil proposed more than two years ago: swapping enriched uranium for reactor fuel. The question will be whether internal Iranian political dynamics will allow reaching an agreement before the Iranian presidential elections in June 2013. And whether Israel will continue to refrain from unilateral action.
The next most important -- but less immediately pressing -- issue is China. The “Asia pivot” was a signal to China that the U.S. is and will continue to be an Asian and a maritime power. The transition to a new generation of Chinese leaders requires deepening and broadening of relations as the world’s two largest economies continue their complex interactions. Both have significant interests in economic growth and stability and will be careful not to press the other too aggressively even as China continues its positioning in regional issues. With China becoming ever more dependent on Arabian Gulf oil, U.S. protection of the sea lanes to China are a key common interest.
American presidents from Nixon on have often attempted to “resolve the Israel-Palestine situation.”
A wise second-term policy would make it clear that Israeli and Palestinian leaders must make substantial progress before the U.S. re-engages, and then in the role of broker, not deal leader. Palestinians and Israelis have the most at stake; they must reach general agreements, and look to the U.S. and Europe to guarantee those agreements. The current Hamas-Israeli military action in and around Gaza serves to remind everyone how things can easily spiral out of control.
For the rest of the Arab world, the U.S. should continue its policy of support for democratic pluralism, but realize that it can only modestly influence the course of events and not determine outcomes. Building democratic societies is long arduous work and there will be setbacks, mistakes and sometimes terrible violence and even civil war (as America’s own experience shows). Arab societies must find their own way; expecting too much too soon and pushing too hard will be both disappointing and counterproductive.
The Asia pivot should not mean ignoring Europe, but the EU must get its own house in order. The EU has played major roles in Libya and in mobilizing and pressing the Iranian sanctions, but it is beyond the time when the EU needs to assume more responsibility for its own international presence. European countries can and should be strong regional players, partnering with other regional players like Turkey, on issues of mutual interest - like North African stability, regional pipelines to undercut Russian energy monopolies and central Asian development.
But realistic policies won’t guarantee success. More than just a little bit of luck will be required if Obama’s unique blend of pragmatism, empathy and leadership will allow a new and successful style of American presence to significantly influence world affairs over the next four years.