- By Uri Friedman
Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland.
This week brought two related pieces of news. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declared that the U.S.-Russian "reset" cannot "last forever" and suggested that the two sides "update the software" to avoid a "program failure." And U.N. General Assembly President Vuk Jeremic reported that the international body will hold a debate in mid-November on whether to upgrade the Palestinians’ U.N. status to an "observer state."
What’s the connection between the two developments? Both leaders suggested that action would be deferred on these issues for the same reason: the U.S. presidential election. "It is evident that some important things will have to be postponed until after the election marathon in the U.S., Lavrov observed. "The electoral rhetoric beyond the ocean will soon subside to give way to meticulous day-to-day work." Jeremic was more cryptic. "There are electoral and political calendars in many parts of the world," he pointed out in explaining why the United Nations was scheduling the debate when it was.
Even the new leader of Georgia appears to have gotten the message. On Wednesday, Bidzina Ivanishvili announced that his first foreign visit will be to the United States — but not right away. "Although I have already been invited," he added, "I have asked to postpone the visit until after the [U.S.] presidential election."
To varying degrees, presidential elections have always thrown sand in the gears of U.S. foreign policy (the most famous example is Iran releasing U.S. hostages shortly after Ronald Reagan’s election). And we’ve known for awhile now that some of the most critical global issues facing the United States would be in a holding pattern as the race heated up. There was President Obama telling then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in March that he would have "more flexibility" on missile defense after the election. And Congress leaving town in August without acting on a slew of agenda items — from looming defense cuts (so-called sequestration) to Russia-related bills on trade and human rights.
But in recent weeks we’ve gotten one reminder after another of the magnitude of the deferred decisions that will greet the next president of the United States. In an interview with the Washington Post‘s David Ignatius in late September, for example, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad suggested that Iran would only be able to strike a deal with world powers on its nuclear program after the U.S. race. "Experience has shown that important and key decisions are not made in the U.S. leading up to national elections," he argued. "I do believe that some conversations and key issues must be talked about again once we come out of the other end of the political election atmosphere in the United States."
During a U.N. General Assembly speech several days later, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to back away from the possibility of striking Iran’s nuclear facilities in the lead-up to the U.S. election, asserting that Iran’s nuclear development wouldn’t cross his "red line" until the spring or summer. Netanyahu, however, has denied that the U.S. contest influences his decision-making. "What’s guiding me is not the election in the United States but the centrifuges in Iran," he recently told an Israeli newspaper, adding that the latter don’t stop spinning just because America is choosing a new leader.
Earlier in September, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested that the 2012 campaign might explain why the United States hasn’t supported more aggressive action in Syria such as implementing a no-fly zone or arming the Syrian opposition. "Maybe it’s because of the elections — maybe it’s because of the pre-election situation in the States," he told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. "Might be the root cause of this lacking of initiative. Nobody has spoken to us about their reasons, and they are not obliged to state anything."
Abdulbaset Sieda, the leader of the opposition Syrian National Council, has gone further — accusing the United States of forsaking the Syrian rebels because of domestic politics. "We would like to say to President Obama that waiting for election day to make the right decision on Syria is unacceptable for the Syrians," he declared in July. "We cannot understand that a superpower ignores the killing of tens of thousands of Syrian civilians because of an election campaign that a president may win or lose."
There’s also been speculation that the Obama administration is lobbying eurozone leaders to keep Greece in the monetary union until after November, in an effort to avoid shocks to world markets. Last month, Reuters reported that an EU-IMF report on Greece’s precarious debt situation might be delayed because of the U.S. campaign. "The Obama administration doesn’t want anything on a macroeconomic scale that is going to rock the global economy before November 6," an unnamed EU official informed the news agency. But a Greek official later denied the report, and a U.S. official said the communications with EU leaders were intended not to secure Obama’s reelection but rather to protect America’s fragile economic recovery.
So there you have it: critical global issues such as the Syrian crisis, U.S.-Russian reset, U.N. debate on Palestine, and Iranian-Israeli nuclear standoff all in limbo as Americans head to the polls. That’s a pretty daunting set of challenges for the next president. And we haven’t even mentioned the fiscal cliff.