What now? Why Obama will be surprised on foreign policy

In foreign policy, the safest prediction is unpredictability. George W. Bush took office in 2000 condemning "nation-building" and intending to focus on great power politics; then along came 9/11 and he ended up occupying Iraq and Afghanistan. Bill Clinton tried to stay out of the Balkan mess during his first term but eventually found himself ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

In foreign policy, the safest prediction is unpredictability. George W. Bush took office in 2000 condemning "nation-building" and intending to focus on great power politics; then along came 9/11 and he ended up occupying Iraq and Afghanistan. Bill Clinton tried to stay out of the Balkan mess during his first term but eventually found himself sending thousands of soldiers to Bosnia and bombing the Serbs over Kosovo. Bush 41 started out thinking that Saddam Hussein was a U.S. ally and ended up having to drive him out of Kuwait. In each case, these presidents devoted considerable time and attention to problems that they never saw coming. So Barack needs to be prepared for the unexpected. We already know what is on his foreign policy "to do" list -- Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel-Palestine, Colombia, Pakistan, etc. -- but he is certain to get blind-sided by something that he's not even thinking about yet. Will it be a governmental meltdown in Mexico? The unexpected death of a key Mideast leader? A run on the dollar? Who knows? I'd love to tell him what the Big Surprise is going to be; alas, nobody's crystal ball is that good. But when it happens -- and it will -- we'll find out just how good a leader he really is.

In foreign policy, the safest prediction is unpredictability. George W. Bush took office in 2000 condemning "nation-building" and intending to focus on great power politics; then along came 9/11 and he ended up occupying Iraq and Afghanistan. Bill Clinton tried to stay out of the Balkan mess during his first term but eventually found himself sending thousands of soldiers to Bosnia and bombing the Serbs over Kosovo. Bush 41 started out thinking that Saddam Hussein was a U.S. ally and ended up having to drive him out of Kuwait. In each case, these presidents devoted considerable time and attention to problems that they never saw coming. So Barack needs to be prepared for the unexpected. We already know what is on his foreign policy "to do" list — Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel-Palestine, Colombia, Pakistan, etc. — but he is certain to get blind-sided by something that he’s not even thinking about yet. Will it be a governmental meltdown in Mexico? The unexpected death of a key Mideast leader? A run on the dollar? Who knows? I’d love to tell him what the Big Surprise is going to be; alas, nobody’s crystal ball is that good. But when it happens — and it will — we’ll find out just how good a leader he really is.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

More from Foreign Policy

U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands.

Xi-Biden Meeting May Help End China’s Destructive Isolation

Beijing has become dangerously locked off from the world.

The exterior of the Russian Embassy in Stockholm, Sweden, is pictured on March 27, 2018.
The exterior of the Russian Embassy in Stockholm, Sweden, is pictured on March 27, 2018.

Sweden’s Espionage Scandal Raises Hard Questions on Spy Recruitment

Intelligence agencies debate whether foreign-born citizens are more targeted.

President Joe Biden gestures with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the two leaders met in a hallway as Biden was going to a European Commission on the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Nusa Dua, on the Indonesian island of Bali, on November 15, 2022.
President Joe Biden gestures with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the two leaders met in a hallway as Biden was going to a European Commission on the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Nusa Dua, on the Indonesian island of Bali, on November 15, 2022.

The G-20 Proved It’s Our World Government

At a time of global conflict, world powers showed that cooperation can actually work.

An illustration for Puck magazine from 1905 shows the battle against bureaucracy.
An illustration for Puck magazine from 1905 shows the battle against bureaucracy.

Only an Absolute Bureaucracy Can Save Us

The West will only restore its stability when civil servants are again devoted to the public rather than themselves.