Global Advice for Obama’s Second Term

Global Advice for Obama’s Second Term

What sort of foreign policy agenda will President Obama’s second term pursue? Asia, trade, and Mideast crisis management must all be in the forefront, say four global experts.

February 7, 2013 1:07 pm (EST)

Expert Roundup
CFR fellows and outside experts weigh in to provide a variety of perspectives on a foreign policy topic in the news.

Editor’s note: This roundup is a feature of the Council of Councils initiative, gathering opinions from global experts on major international developments.

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President Barack Obama concluded his first term in office with a "re-balance" of strategic priorities geared toward the Asia-Pacific region. As he embarks on his second term, four global experts propose ways he can make that pivot enhance U.S. ties and influence worldwide.

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Chaesung Chun of South Korea’s East Asia Institute urges Washington to do more to build trust and cooperation with China and step up efforts to encourage coordination among regional allies. Henriette Rytz of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs says the traditional U.S. allies in Europe can serve as vital partners economically and politically in dealing with China. Gen. Amos Yadlin of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies calls for clear, consistent signals from the administration in support of democratic freedoms throughout the roiling Arab world. Octavio Amorim Neto of Brazil’s Getulio Vargas Foundation recommends pushing initiatives that can boost economic growth, such as enhanced trade ties with the EU and China.

Chaesung Chun

Continuity will be the most important feature for the Obama administration’s second-term foreign policy, particularly in Asia. On the basis of the achievements during the first term in pivoting American strategic weight to Asia, the new foreign policy team will seek to exercise leadership in the region as an Asia-Pacific power.

Another factor that will support the prospect for continuity in Washington’s Asia policy is the strategic orientation of the new leaders in East Asia: Except for Japan and North Korea, new leaders in China, Russia, South Korea, and Taiwan will continue with the strategic approach of their predecessors. Only the Japanese Liberal Democratic Party and North Korea under the young Kim Jong-un increase unpredictability in the region.

Despite this continuity, President Obama will still face four new tasks during his second term: First, the United States needs to elaborate more on the so-called "new forms of great power relationship" with China. Despite announcements from leaders in both countries that a peaceful and stable coexistence of two great powers is possible during a period of power shift, it is still not evident how they will reduce strategic mistrust and heighten the level of cooperation.

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Second, as the alliance network built by the United States transforms itself from the "hub-and-spoke" model to an "inter-spoke" network to ease tensions between China and its neighbors, Washington’s role to encourage cooperation among its alliance partners will become a more important task. For example, faced with rising tensions between South Korea and Japan due to territorial disputes and historical issues, President Obama’s role to mediate between these countries will draw much attention.

[D]ealing wisely with regional flashpoints, such as the North Korean nuclear problem and the South China Sea dispute, will strengthen U.S. credibility

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Third, East Asia is suffering from its own regional problems: territorial disputes, rising nationalism, conflicting interpretations of history, and power transition coming from the rise of China. The U.S. attempt to design a new regional architecture should be based upon deep regional sensitivity. Only by understanding the issues affecting East Asians at home will President Obama’s Asia policy be able to take root in the region.

Fourth, dealing wisely with regional flashpoints, such as the North Korean nuclear problem and the South China Sea dispute, will strengthen U.S. credibility and create a lasting legacy. In particular, since the North Korean nuclear problem originates from the existential instability created after the end of the Cold War, the Obama administration should pursue a more positive initiative in resolving it during his second term in office.

Henriette Rytz

The U.S. pivot to Asia is the signature foreign policy of the Obama administration. In Europe, however, it has raised apprehensions that the United States will lose interest in a strong transatlantic relationship. To ease these concerns, the Obama administration should communicate more clearly that the pivot is an opportunity, not a threat, for stronger transatlantic cooperation.

The Obama administration has strengthened U.S. military, diplomatic, and economic relations with the Asia-Pacific region, including an increased U.S. military presence and negotiations over an ambitious trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Rhetorically, this has been accompanied by declarations of a "Pacific Century" and a "Pacific Presidency."

The debate in Washington is largely focused on the scope and instruments of the pivot, rather than its transatlantic implications. This makes European observers uneasy--even more so as the Obama administration plans to reduce the U.S. military presence in Europe from 80,000 to 70,000 troops by 2017. Viewing the pivot as a turn away from Europe has become a common misperception in European capitals.

Obama should present the pivot to Asia as a chance for enhancing transatlantic cooperation instead of diminishing it.

To be sure, the transatlantic relationship has long passed the "golden age" of the Cold War. Yet European enthusiasm for the United States soared with the election of Barack Obama. And, at the beginning of his second term, Europeans still strongly approve of Obama. What they do not agree with are some of his policies--including the continued detention of presumed terrorists at Guantánamo Bay, or the increased use of drone strikes, which is emerging as the next major transatlantic controversy.

To his European partners, Obama should present the pivot to Asia as a chance for enhancing transatlantic cooperation instead of diminishing it. Furthermore, he should invite them to join the United States in its efforts. While European states lack both the capabilities and the will to follow the U.S. example militarily, they can cooperate in the economic and political arenas, particularly in dealings with China.

With diplomatic resources shifting toward Asia, the United States should also look for enhanced cooperation with Europe in the Middle East, as well as in Africa. Lastly, to underline its commitment to Europe, the United States should not neglect the establishment of a transatlantic free trade agreement over its push for increased trans-Pacific economic integration.

The concern over the pivot to Asia is primarily a communication problem. The nomination of two long-standing transatlanticists to the top positions in foreign affairs, Senator John Kerry and former senator Chuck Hagel, opens an excellent window of opportunity for the Obama administration to convey the message to Europe that Obama values transatlantic cooperation even more--not less--in his second term.

Amos Yadlin

Despite the U.S. foreign policy shift from the Middle East to Asia-Pacific, the superpower still has vital interests in the former. During President Obama’s second term in office, he will face four major challenges in the Middle East: the Iranian nuclear crisis, the civil war in Syria, the democratic transitions sweeping the Arab world, and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Of these challenges, at least the first two require an immediate response.

Iran’s nuclear program will be the first item on the agenda in 2013, requiring a clear and coherent U.S. strategy. Iranian advances in proliferating and fortifying their nuclear facilities have moved up the threshold of possible Israeli military action to as early as this spring. Yet, even the United States will soon be forced to consider military action if sanctions, diplomacy, or covert operations bear no fruit. The administration should table a proposal that halts the Iranian program and ensures invasive inspections, while providing various "carrots" in exchange for its "sticks." If Iran rejects the proposal, the United States should tighten sanctions and credibly prepare a military contingency.

The administration should table a proposal that halts the Iranian program and ensures invasive inspections, while providing various "carrots."

In Syria, where the death toll now stands at over 60,000, according to the United Nations, the West has not fulfilled its "responsibility to protect." The Obama administration should work with Russia to lift the protection of President Bashar al-Assad and put an end to the regime, even if this means conceding to Russian interests elsewhere. The United States should also coordinate military intervention with the Turks. If Turkish military divisions head south while NATO aircraft enforce a no-fly zone and target the remaining areas that are vital to President Assad’s survival, the conflict will likely come to a swift end.

As change continues to ripple across the Arab world, the United States must make clear to new, fledgling democracies that democracy is not just about elections, but also the protection of women and minorities; freedom of organization, speech and the press; and the separation of executive, legislature, and judicial powers to protect against autocracy. In Egypt, for example, the United States should make its much-needed financial assistance contingent on red lines drawn to protect Egypt’s democratic character and ensure its international commitments.

One cannot list the challenges facing the Obama administration without reference to the impasse in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The administration should seek to resume negotiations while taking into account the lessons from the last four years. New paradigms may be necessary to renew and reenergize the process and its solution.

Octavio Amorim Neto

Many policy experts agree that President Obama, hard-pressed by the U.S. debt crisis and restricted by a Republican-dominated House of Representatives, will focus on domestic issues--being diverted from them only if a major international crisis erupts.

The question, however, is how Obama will obtain cooperation from the Republican base in Congress on the domestic front. Possibly, the president could be more assertive and build a wider coalition centered on core democratic constituencies, Latinos and other ethnic minorities, women, and homosexuals to outflank the Republican Party. But will this be enough? Chances are that it will not, given the high level of polarization in Washington.

[S]ome foreign policy initiatives can not only enhance President Obama’s legacy, but may also help build much needed political capital at home.

In that case, Obama is likely to make use of the time-honored tactic of "going public." That is, the president will put pressure on the House Representatives by appealing to public opinion; this would be consistent with a more assertive attitude toward the opposition.

Obama will need to actively generate public support to persuade Republicans to support his agenda, and it is here that foreign policy enters the picture: The grandstanding allowed by certain foreign policy initiatives can be an effective tool to obtain public support and higher approval ratings.

There are some foreign policy initiatives that can not only enhance President Obama’s legacy, but may also help build much needed political capital at home. In particular, initiatives that could boost economic growth, such as a trade agreement with the European Union, a Group of Two (China-U.S.) agreement on trade and climate change, or tackling the world’s financial challenges. In addition, President Obama should have political incentives to promote a two-state solution in the Middle East.

Finally, Latin America is unlikely to play a prominent part in Obama’s agenda. While it is true that immigration reform may benefit the region by increasing remittances, this is not a foreign policy issue in the United States.


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