Transition 2012Transition 2012

Resources on the foreign policy dimensions of the presidential transition


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Getting on With the Twenty-First Century

Author: Charles A. Kupchan, Senior Fellow
October 31, 2012
Corriere della Sera


First published in Italian in Corriere della Sera

The next occupant of the Oval Office will be the first U.S. president to be able to turn his gaze to the broader international challenges of the 21st century. The Bush administration was consumed by 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Barack Obama wanted to shift to a new agenda, but going after extremists, winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and dealing with the Arab awakening kept him preoccupied with the Middle East.

The winner on November 6 will finally be able to rebalance U.S. priorities. Iraq is on its own, Afghanistan is increasingly so, and Al-Qaeda is on the run. Notwithstanding the possibility of a war against Iran and the need to remain vigilant in combatting terrorism, Washington has many pending issues to attend to beyond the Middle East, including deepening engagement in East Asia and managing a global landscape in which the distribution of power is fasting changing.

Although he will have both a mandate and opportunity to broaden America's foreign policy agenda, the next president will also be faced with unprecedented constraints. Power is diffusing from the West to the rising rest, denying Washington the leverage that accompanied unquestioned hegemony. Getting America's fiscal house in order will require painful cuts across the board, including at the Pentagon; the next president will have to do more with less. And a debilitating polarization of U.S. politics promises only to get worse; the Republican Party is veering further to the right as it loses its few remaining moderates, setting the stage for mounting ideological confrontation with Democrats.

This unenviable mix of imperatives and constraints will leave the next president little room for maneuver. If Romney wins, he may well come into office determined to fulfill neoconservative dreams by ramping up defense spending and reinstating Bush-style unilateralism and bravado. But the rest of the world, along with fiscal hawks in his own party, would have none of it. Romney's foreign policy would likely start off by meandering between the excessive ambitions of his neoconservative advisors and the isolationist instincts of the Tea Party. Over time, however, international and domestic constraints would push Romney toward the same brand of pragmatic realism followed by Obama.

Whoever emerges on top next Tuesday, the first item on the foreign policy agenda will be domestic renewal. America's strength abroad has always rested on its economic and political solvency at home. Today, however, inequality, debt, and stagnant middle-class incomes are not just plaguing the economy, but also eating away at the bipartisan consensus that anchored U.S. foreign policy from World War II through the end of the twentieth century.

It is on the issue of economic renewal that the substantive gap between Obama and Romney is the greatest. Obama believes that the government must help guide the economy to health, in part by investing in education, infrastructure, and research to ensure the middle class partakes of a restored prosperity. Romney sees government as the problem, insisting that cuts in regulation, taxation, and spending will stimulate growth. Romney's prescriptions seem unrealistic in light of the structural challenges that globalization pose to the U.S. economy. Nonetheless, the outcome of the election may well ride on this debate.

The top challenge beyond U.S. borders will be Iran's nuclear program. Whether Obama or Romney wins, he will need to take advantage of a window of opportunity to secure a diplomatic solution. That solution would likely require Tehran's readiness to cease the enrichment of uranium beyond reactor grade and to accept intrusive inspection of all its nuclear facilities. In return, the international community would incrementally dial back sanctions and Iran's political isolation.

If a deal along these lines is not forthcoming by the spring of 2013, a U.S. strike against Iran during the second half of the year is highly likely. With both Obama and Romney unequivocal that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable, a U.S. military strike seems unavoidable should diplomacy fail. The uncertain consequences of such a strike will press the next occupant of the Oval Office to seek a deal with Tehran before the clock runs out.

Throughout the rest of the Middle East, the White House will need to pursue a balancing act in order to avoid ensnarement in the region's turmoil while at the same time channeling the political awakening in a positive direction. Even if with discomfort, the next president will likely resist direct intervention in Syria, watch awkwardly as the withdrawal from Afghanistan cedes ground to insurgents, and turn the other way as governments from Iraq to Bahrain rule with a heavy hand. Meanwhile, Washington will have to grapple with the Islamist forces that are gaining ground throughout the region, reaching out to parties that embrace pluralism and tolerance. American strategy will be to reduce strategic exposure without abandoning leverage.

Limiting American exposure in the Middle East is needed to free up attention and resources to advance the "pivot" to Asia begun by Obama. Washington will want to make sure that the U.S. economy fully benefits from expanding commerce in the Pacific region. It will also be intent on hedging against the continuing rise of China, deepening engagement on shared interests while also being firm in deterring Chinese adventurism. China-bashing has electoral appeal in the United States while anti-Americanism runs deep in China, ensuring that managing the domestic politics of Sino-American relations will be as challenging as the diplomacy.

Raising America's economic and strategic profile in East Asia represents just one component of the broader effort needed to adjust U.S. diplomacy to a changing world. The growing wealth and influence of emerging powers requires a reallocation of global authority; no longer are the Western democracies able to call the shots. The challenge entails not just putting seats at the table for China, India, Brazil, and other ascending states. It will also require recognizing that the Western way will have to compete in the marketplace of ideas with state capitalism, political Islam, and other approaches to domestic and international governance.

During the campaign, both Obama and Romney were keen to pronounce the 21st century an American century. Once in office, they will have to demonstrate a more realistic approach to managing a world that will become both multipolar and ideologically diverse. Doing so will require forging a consensus on the new rules of the road needed to preserve stability. Orchestrating this historic transition peacefully is a paramount challenge of our time.

Finally, the next American president will have to invest in the durability of the transatlantic partnership. The bond between the United States and Europe has demonstrated remarkable resilience since the Cold War's end. Despite repeated moments of doubt on both sides, transatlantic teamwork remains an anchor of global stability. That anchor will be increasingly important in a world in which Western values and interests face new challenges from without.

The greater burden lies with Europeans themselves. They must weather the Eurozone crisis and ensure that over time the EU is able to shoulder increased geopolitical burdens. With the United States heading into lean times, Washington would be especially welcoming of an EU that does a better job of aggregating its collective voice on matters of security. Notwithstanding Romney's dismissive attitude toward Europe during the campaign, even he would be keenly attentive to Europe's financial stability and its geopolitical heft in the years ahead.

Despite Romney's bluster as a candidate, constraints at home and abroad would ultimately push him in Obama's direction on foreign policy. The most pressing question for American voters is therefore which candidate is better poised to bring America's economy and democratic institutions back to life. In the end this too is a foreign policy question: renewal at home is essential to power and purpose abroad.

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