Realism for Obama's Second Term

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Second-term U.S. presidents often turn to foreign affairs because they are dogged by political obstacles domestically, where their lame-duck status inevitably drains their political muscle. So they turn to the relative freedom-of-action internationally.

President Obama faces a different milieu -- both at home and abroad.

The election made it clear that the majority of Americans want him (and the Congress) to focus on rebuilding at home, energizing the slow recovery, resolving the budget deficit and accumulated debt with an over-all plan that deals with the structural problems of unsustainable growth in entitlement programs and the economic warps induced by the special-interest-goody-laden tax code.

It also emphasized that the American public is more than weary of trillion-dollar wars with unclear outcomes that divert resources, energy and focus from what needs to be done at home.

So while it is no surprise that the 2012 election was even less about foreign policy than many, it does not mean that there are not great challenges abroad that require American attention and leadership from its president.

To the extent that foreign policy played even a bit part in the election, the Obama victory vindicated his fundamental stance: America must be strong at home and not overextended abroad if it is to continue to play a leadership role. Echoing realists from at least Eisenhower's presidency, to be successful, the U.S. must orchestrate other key players in support of common aims - regardless of American military superiority. And it must also understand that events often overtake policies and almost always must be dealt with messily rather than “controlled.”

With that realist framework in mind, what might be expected internationally in the next four years?

A leadership presence internationally requires strength at home. So task one for domestic and international affairs is a credible program to reduce deficits and make progress toward balanced federal budgets, as well as paying down the accumulated debt.

But with or without such a grand bargain, the administration will no doubt continue its emphasis on multi-faceted politico-diplomatic activity, coupled with a willingness to use force in two very different circumstances: unilaterally, with special forces, drones, cyber and other high-tech weaponry, and multilaterally when a coalition of the willing can be mobilized for clearly limited aims, as in Libya. 

This involves a more precise definition of U.S. interests than the expansive rhetoric of extending freedom and liberty as “the hope of the earth,” as Gov. Romney exhorted during the campaign.

The principles underlying this framework were emphasized by the president when he released the January 2012 Strategic Defense Guidance: security for ourselves, allies and partners; “prosperity that flows from an open and free international economic system;” “a just and sustainable international order where the rights and responsibilities of nations and peoples are upheld, especially the fundamental rights of every human being.”

While noting that all aspects of American power need to be available for deployment, the president highlighted investment in “intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; counterterrorism; countering weapons of mass destruction; … and prevailing in all domains, including cyber.”

No doubt these principles and objectives will guide the administration’s foreign policy actions over the next four years.


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.

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