Stephen M. Walt

What’s the foreign policy agenda for the next four years?

Is it too early to talk about the foreign policy and national security agenda that will face the next president? No matter who wins on November 6, the feature that is going to dominate U.S. national security planning over the next four years is constraint. Even if we avoid going off the sequestration cliff, there ...

Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images
Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images

Is it too early to talk about the foreign policy and national security agenda that will face the next president? No matter who wins on November 6, the feature that is going to dominate U.S. national security planning over the next four years is constraint. Even if we avoid going off the sequestration cliff, there is going to be considerable pressure on the defense budget. Forget all those promises that Romney made about ramping up defense spending, expanding the Navy, etc. If he does beat Obama and has to face reality (as opposed to his Etch-a-Sketch approach to campaigning) he’ll figure out that budget math is real and unforgiving. And given the budget picture these days, that means limits.

Of course, foreign policy and national security tends to produce a lot of surprises; it’s probably the least predictable part of a president’s agenda. Remember that George W. Bush was totally blindsided by 9/11, an event that shaped almost everything he subsequently did in foreign and defense policy. Barack Obama didn’t see the Arab spring coming, yet he’s had to devote a lot of time and attention to figuring out what to do (or not to do) in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and elsewhere. No list of agenda items will cover all the possible topics, and it’s a safe bet the next president will get to deal with something that hardly anybody anticipated.

That said, what do I see as some obvious items that the next president will have to address? Obviously, he’ll have to manage the withdrawal from Afghanistan, keep relations with China on an even keel, cultivate reasonable ties with Mexico and other neighbors in the western hemisphere, and hope that the Eurozone mess doesn’t get worse. But here’s my list of the items that might take up even more of his time.

#1: Managing America’s Asian Alliances

No matter how much you hear about the importance of cooperating with China, a serious rivalry is almost inevitable. I don’t expect a shooting war — and certainly not in the next four years — instead, the key element of that rivalry will be a competition for influence in Asia. The United States is already trying to shore up ties with Japan, Korea, India, and various Southeast Asian nations, and China is going to try to limit with this process where it can.   

As I’ve noted before, leading this alliance is going to be much harder than managing NATO was during the Cold War. The geographic distances are much larger, which makes it easier for allies to shirk responsibilities when trouble occurs a long ways away. Relations among some of our Asian partners aren’t that good, as the collapse of a South Korean-Japanese agreement on intelligence sharing earlier this year illustrated. Furthermore, our NATO partners had minimal economic ties to the former Soviet Union, while our Asian allies are tightly linked to China’s economy and are going to want to keep those ties intact if they can. We can also expect big debates on burden-sharing: the United States will want the allies to bear as much of the burden as possible, while they will want to keep free-riding as much as they have in the past.

In short, maintaining a secure position in Asia will require a lot of expertise and adroit diplomacy, which is not always America’s long suit. The next president will need a good team, and will have to devote some of his own time, attention, and political capital to the problem.

#2: Dealing with the Arab Spring. 

The Arab world is in midst of vast and unpredictable upheaval, which is likely to produce governments that are more responsive to popular sentiment than their predecessors were. They may not be perfect democracies, but rulers will worry a lot more about popular opinion than their predecessors did. But this process will take time — measured in years, not months. As we’ve already seen in Libya and Syria, these events raise vexing national security questions for the United States. Are these events an opportunity to diminish Iran’s influence, strike a blow for democracy, and further marginalize anti-American forces? Or is the collapse of the old order undermining traditional U.S. friends and allowing anti-American sentiment (and Islamic extremists) a greater voice in the region’s politics? What if Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and the Kurds get drawn into the vortex? 

Given what is already occurring, Obama or Romney will have to spend a lot of time worrying about this part of the world. But as Obama has already discovered (and Romney would quickly learn) they won’t have a lot of leverage over these events, and not a lot of appealing policy options. What they’ll have instead is a serious headache.

#3: Beyond the Two-State Solution. 

The next president may also have to face up to the fact that there isn’t going to be a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, and begin to think seriously about what an alternative U.S. policy should be. Obama has already learned that trying to pursue the 2SS is "just really hard," and Romney famously told a group of fat cat GOP donors that he didn’t think that goal was achievable. 

I’ve always seen the 2SS as the best outcome given where we were, but it is no longer realistic to expect it to happen. The Israeli right has no interest in it, the Palestinians are too weak and divided to put meaningful pressure on them, and the United States is too compromised by the Israel lobby to be an effective mediator. The "two-state solution" has become a fig leaf for politicians to hide behind, while realities on the ground make it less and less likely by the day.

But sooner or later, it will be obvious to everyone that it simply isn’t going to happen. As I’ve argued before, that epiphany raises all sorts of awkward questions:  In particular, what outcome should a liberal democracy like the United States favor if "two states for two peoples" is impossible? Do we abandon our commitment to "one person, one vote" and endorse permanent apartheid? Do we abandon our deep commitment to a Jewish state and support a one-state democracy for all the inhabitants of Israel/Palestine? Or do we quietly encourage ethnic cleansing?  

No matter who the next president is, I’m sure they will try to avoid those awkward questions for as long as they can. But they may not be able to do so forever without looking like they are living in fantasyland.

#4: Living with a Nuclear-Capable Iran:  

No matter who wins, I suspect we’ll see a new push for some sort of diplomatic deal with Iran. It’s been reported (and denied) that Obama intends to do this after the election, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a Romney administration made at least a gesture in this direction. But my guess that the United States is going to gradually adjust itself to a nuclear-capable (but not nuclear armed) Iran.

Here’s why. I don’t think Iran will cross any overt "red lines" in the next four years, meaning that it isn’t going to try to fabricate or test a nuclear weapon or start enriching uranium to 90%. They won’t do this because that is the one step that might trigger a U.S. attack. Absent such a move by Iran, I don’t think either Israel or the United States will conduct a preventive strike. Israel doesn’t have the capability to conduct a strategically meaningful attack, and most of the U.S. national security establishment thinks an attack would be foolish. I can’t rule out war, however, because countries sometimes do stupid things and there are prominent voices who are still pushing it, but I’m betting that cooler heads prevail.

So the next president will be facing an Iran that is nuclear capable (meaning it has the theoretical capacity to build a bomb if it chooses to do so). Even if we don’t reach a formal diplomatic deal (i.e., one that permitted Iran to enrich uranium to low levels and gradually reduced economic sanctions), he’ll probably deal with it exactly the same way we dealt with other nuclear powers: i.e., via containment and deterrence. Note: this step will also mean negotiating security arrangements with key U.S. allies in a period where regional politics are going to be quite volatile (see #2 above). In short, plenty for the next president to do on this issue, too.

#5:  What sort of country are we becoming?

Finally, the next president needs to do some hard thinking about the kind of country the United States is becoming. The United States has fought four wars since 1990, and is currently conducting drone strikes and special operations in a half a dozen countries. We are deeply worried about cyber-war and cyber-security, but we are also using these weapons for offensive purposes in ways that we would regard as wholly illegitimate if someone did it to us.

In the same way, American experts now discuss "preventive war" in remarkably casual terms, as if it were just one of many strategic options. They seem to forget that by definition, preventive war means attacking countries that have not attacked us and are not about to do so. "Preventive war" was what Japan did to us at Pearl Harbor, and ambitious young policy wonks now prescribe it without much self-reflection and seemingly unaware that real human lives are at stake. 

Instead of the citizen army that we relied upon in World War I, World War II, and Korea, we now have a professional military that receives enormous deference from politicians, pundits, academics, and the public. U.S. politicians rarely have military experience — Clinton, Bush 43, Obama, and Romney never served, and neither have any of their children — and this fact inevitably affects their relations with the military establishment. Neither Obama nor Romney said a critical word about the military during any of their debates, even though the quality of military leadership and advice in both Iraq and Afghanistan has been deficient. U.S. politicians rarely talk about peace anymore; instead, they try to sound tough-minded and ever-willing to use force.

Since 9/11, we have created a vast array of intelligence and counter-terrorist organizations whose activities are largely hidden from the citizens who are paying for them and who will bear the consequences if their actions are misguided. Both common sense and much history teaches us that lack of transparency and accountability usually breeds bad behavior, and we may one day be shocked when we find out what’s been done in our country’s name over the past decade.

Who will play watchdog? Not most academics, who are too busy with ivory-tower exercises and for the most part discomfited by national security issues. Not the mainstream media, which depends on cozy relations with those in power. Not the DC think tanks funded by the defense industry and employing would-be or former officials eager to preserve their career options (and consulting businesses).

So, in addition to all those other challenges, I hope the next president will start unwinding some of the practices we adopted in the aftermath of 9/11, and move us back to being a country that is slower to anger, more interested in diplomacy, and not quite as trigger happy. But I wouldn’t bet on it, becuase he’ll be too busy dealing with the rest of his agenda, plus the inevitable surprises that will rise up to bite him.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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