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Resources on the foreign policy dimensions of the presidential transition

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A Heavy Post-Election Agenda

Interviewee: James M. Lindsay, Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
November 2, 2012

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Among the problems facing whoever is elected the next U.S. president on Tuesday, CFR's James M. Lindsay, an expert on U.S. politics, says "none is going to be bigger than the need to put the U.S. government on a sound fiscal footing." Lindsay says that even though neither President Barack Obama nor Republican candidate Mitt Romney discussed foreign affairs much in the campaign, "the one lesson for all presidents is that you can expect foreign policy to throw up challenges that you've never dreamed of on Inauguration Day." Lindsay says the number one issue is whether Iran can be persuaded through negotiations to give up any plans for nuclear weapons capability or whether force will have to be used. He also says Afghanistan and Pakistan will be major problems for the next president, and recurring issues like Russia, China, and climate change will be major challenges as well.

Despite all of the attention given to Hurricane Sandy this week, next Tuesday is still Election Day. What are the main problems that will be facing the newly elected president?

The new president is going to face an array of problems, and none is going to be bigger than the need to put the U.S. government on a sound fiscal footing. A trillion dollar deficit simply isn't sustainable. Everyone knows that. Unfortunately, Washington has been unable to agree on how to solve the problem. It is inescapable that some people are going to have to pay more or get less in the way of government services. The immediate test on this score is going to come with the approach with the so-called "fiscal cliff."

The [fiscal cliff is a] confluence of several events at the end of this calendar year. First: the expiration of the tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush. Second: the implementation of "sequestration" – that is, the across-the-board spending cuts required under the terms of last year's deal to raise the national debt ceiling. Third: the expiration of the unemployment insurance extension. Fourth: the end of the payroll tax cuts. Further complicating matters is the looming approach of yet another confrontation with the U.S. national debt ceiling.

How this will play out and when it will play out will obviously depend on who wins next Tuesday. But regardless of whether it's President Obama or Governor Romney, the winner is going to need to make tough choices and be able to build the necessary support across the two parties to make the deal stick.

The Congress that will be sitting through the end of the year is the old Congress, the so-called "lame duck" Congress. Do you think it will accept whatever the president-elect wants?

It's a tough call on how things will actually play out in the "lame duck" session. In all likelihood, if President Obama wins, you will see an effort to try to strike a deal before the end of the year. Whether that gets done, of course, depends a lot on how elements of the Republican Party read the meaning of an Obama victory. If Governor Romney wins, it's likely that the issue won't be settled until the new Congress is seated after January 3, on the grounds that under a new Romney administration, you'd be likely to see a deal that's more favorable to the positions that Republicans have staked out.

And of course we don't know how the congressional election will turn out either.

We don't know how the congressional election will turn out. The conventional wisdom is that Republicans will hold onto the House and Democrats will hold on to the Senate. That is, the Congress that we will have after January 3 will look a lot like the one we have right now. But again, many of these races, especially on the Senate side, are very close, so who turns out or who doesn't turn out, who has the vote break their way in the last seventy-two hours – all of those sorts of things can really change the outcome. It's an election on a knife's edge in which small changes in voting behavior could have very big impact on the actual outcome of the election.

The two candidates, in their last debate, discussed foreign policy, but I was struck by the fact that even though it was supposed to be about foreign policy, domestic policy got in the middle of it. What foreign policy issues will come to the fore for the president-elect?

The one lesson for all presidents is that you can expect foreign policy to throw up challenges that you've never dreamed of on Inauguration Day. That's what happened to George W. Bush with 9/11, and it happened with Barack Obama with the Arab Spring. So whoever takes the oath of office on January 20, 2013, is inevitably going to face some crisis overseas that he hadn't anticipated. That said, there are clear problems and challenges that the next president will have to face.

The most immediate one is Iran. Here we have the question of whether the United States can push Tehran to the bargaining table and strike a deal to limit its nuclear program, or [whether] Iran [continues] on the path that appears to be toward the possession of or acquiring the capability to manufacture a nuclear weapon. That obviously raises the question of whether the United States will use military force to stop Iran or resign itself to a nuclear Iran and pursue a policy of containment.

The second major foreign policy issue the next president will confront is Afghanistan. Do we stick to the 2014 handover that is currently envisioned? Does it get sped up? Does the nature of the drawdown change? President Obama has made it clear that he intends to stick to his 2014 timetable. Governor Romney has said he accepts the 2014 deadline in principle, but he has suggested that if he becomes president, he may reconsider it in light of the advice he gets from his senior military advisers.

What about Syria?

Yes. The third big issue is Syria and the broader Arab awakening. The internal violence in Syria has led to the deaths of more than 30,000 people, and there is no sign of the fighting tilting toward the government or the rebels any time soon.

So the next administration is going to have to make choices on what its policy is on Syria, how much more support does the United States give the rebels, and, if the government of President Bashar al-Assad collapses, how does the administration plan to shape events afterward so that the Syria that exists post-Assad is better than the one with Assad.

And China will still be a major issue.

Now we get to what I call the horizon challenges – that is, challenges that are not immediate but obviously ones that you will have to make decisions about. And here I will flag three. The obvious one is China. China presents a major challenge for the next president because its danger stems both from its strengths and from its weaknesses. Much of the attention is focused on China's growing strength, economically and also militarily.

We have seen in recent months in Beijing a much more belligerent public tone. Just this past week, a senior People's Liberation Army general was at a major military conference in Australia in which he railed against the American forces in Asia and raised the prospect that this could encourage war. What we don't really know is to what extent the harsher tones coming out of Beijing reflect its own leadership transition due to occur this month. We're about to go to a new generation of Chinese leaders, and the open question is what sort of tone will they strike going forward. But clearly, there are major issues about what the American military and economic posture will be in East Asia and how will the Chinese respond, and how will America's allies and friends respond to that response.

But China's potential weaknesses also pose a danger. Growth in the Chinese economy has slowed. That raises the prospect of increasing social unrest. Beijing may be tempted to deflect attention from any economic woes by pursuing more nationalistic policies abroad, especially on its maritime boundary disputes with its neighbors in northeast and southeast Asia.

The second country I would flag is Pakistan. Here, you have a country with a growing nuclear arsenal and a state apparatus that is decaying. Pakistan faces many internal challenges, and the real question for the United States is whether it is a friend or foe.

The third issue that is going to require attention on the part of the next administration is one that hasn't been talked about a lot during the campaign but [has] probably been given new life by Hurricane Sandy. That's the issue of climate change and what the United States is going to do on that front. My suspicion is that you're not likely to see much on the multilateral Kyoto-style front, but you may be seeing a lot more focus on dealing with the reality that we seem to be having more major weather events, and that they are proving to be immensely costly.

And of course, we have continual issues like relations with Russia.

When you become president of the United States, you discover you're now responsible for 190+ bilateral relations. Clearly for the next president, one of the major issues is going to be what do you wish to get out of other major powers such as Russia. Governor Romney on the campaign trail has been much more critical of President Vladimir Putin and the Russian government than President Obama has been. It is not necessarily clear how that will translate in terms of practical policy differences, in part because Russia has been very important to the U.S. effort in Afghanistan by enabling materials to get to U.S. troops through the so-called northern distribution network.

You're also going to have the issue of the future of the European Union and, specifically, the eurozone crisis. In an interconnected, globalized world, an economic slowdown in one part of the globe harms other parts of the world. The U.S. economy is growing at a relatively anemic pace, and having Europe perform even worse just adds an additional drag on in the U.S. economy.

In all, the next president will not lack for foreign policy challenges. He is going to face a very daunting agenda, which is why our sympathies and support should go to whoever wins on November 6.

Does it strike you as interesting that, during the campaign, almost nothing was said about foreign affairs?

The lack of attention to foreign affairs in the campaign trail in 2012 wasn't surprising. What you heard from people over and over again was that they were worried about jobs and the economy. That's understandable given that we have just come through the worst economic crisis in seventy-five years. The economy hasn't picked up again; unemployment is very high. Most elections turn on domestic issues rather than foreign policy ones.

Another reason why we didn't have a whole lot of talk on foreign policy is because Governor Romney and President Obama, for all of their differences, aren't dramatically different on foreign policy. When you look at Governor Romney and President Obama, you're not seeing two stark foreign policy alternatives. Again, I don't want to suggest that they see all the issues the same, but broadly speaking, they're both internationalists. They've both got a pragmatic streak, so I'd say they're both in the same area code, if not in the same zip code, on foreign policy.

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