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.

More from Foreign Policy

A closeup of Russian President Vladimir Putin
A closeup of Russian President Vladimir Putin

What Russia’s Elites Think of Putin Now

The president successfully preserved the status quo for two decades. Suddenly, he’s turned into a destroyer.

A member of the Zimbabwe Republic Police is seen in front of an electoral poster of President Emmerson Mnangagwa
A member of the Zimbabwe Republic Police is seen in front of an electoral poster of President Emmerson Mnangagwa

Cafe Meeting Turns Into Tense Car Chase for U.S. Senate Aides in Zimbabwe

Leading lawmaker calls on Biden to address Zimbabwe’s “dire” authoritarian turn after the incident.

Steam rises from cooling towers at the Niederaussem coal-fired power plant during the coronavirus pandemic near Bergheim, Germany, on Feb. 11, 2021.
Steam rises from cooling towers at the Niederaussem coal-fired power plant during the coronavirus pandemic near Bergheim, Germany, on Feb. 11, 2021.

Putin’s Energy War Is Crushing Europe

The big question is whether it ends up undermining support for Ukraine.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres attends a press conference.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres attends a press conference.

A Crisis of Faith Shakes the United Nations in Its Big Week

From its failure to stop Russia’s war in Ukraine to its inaction on Myanmar and climate change, the institution is under fire from all sides.