Terms of Engagement

Second-Term Heat

What will be the legacy of Obama's next four years?


Barack Obama has a cautionary temperament, but a large imagination. That is, he defines his goals in grandiose terms, though he is prepared to take many small steps to reach them. Because he took office in the midst of an immense financial crisis (one that he had no reason to expect when he first decided to run), Obama spent far more of his first term staving off calamity than he would have hoped. A combination of sheer urgency, congressional intransigence, and the painful lessons of experience — especially on foreign policy — have sapped Obama’s presidency of much of the youthful exuberance and ambition it once had. I cannot believe that he is altogether satisfied with where he finds himself today. As he faces his inauguration on Monday, Jan. 21, and his second term, he is sure to be thinking about how he can leave a mark on history commensurate with his sense of destiny.

It’s a truism, and possibly even a true one, that U.S. presidents who win a second term look to foreign affairs to burnish their legacy. Foreign policy does not require messy compromises with Congress, and second-term presidents are usually more confident of their standing in the world and thus readier to go for broke. After a first term spent confronting the "Evil Empire," as he called the Soviet Union, in 1986 President Ronald Reagan met in Reykjavik, Iceland, with his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, and came within a hairsbreadth of agreeing to eliminate much of the two countries’ nuclear arsenals. President Bill Clinton made a last-ditch effort to broker a peace deal between Israel and Palestine; that failed, but Clinton’s only slightly less difficult mediation between Britain and Northern Ireland succeeded. The same rule does not quite hold for President George W. Bush, who was all too confident of his judgment of the world before he knew anything about it and spent much of his second term cleaning up the mess he had caused in the first.

Obama came into office caring about foreign policy more than any of his predecessors back to the first President Bush. His advisors would tell you that Obama had not just a managerial agenda but an affirmative one: The chief elements were nuclear nonproliferation, climate change, fixing failed states, and rebuilding the international architecture. He has made real progress in all those areas, and he won a Nobel Peace Prize, which he acknowledged he did not yet deserve. His "engagement" policy has leached some of the poisons that gathered during George W. Bush’s presidency. And yes, he killed Osama bin Laden. But Afghanistan has proved to be Obama’s Big Muddy; Iran has shown no signs of giving up its nuclear program or caving under sanctions; Obama has found himself unable to act in the face of massive atrocities in Syria; and the president’s bid to bring Middle East peace came to naught. Had he lost the election, Obama’s most lasting contribution to U.S. national security policy almost certainly would have been the program of targeted killing through drone strikes with which he has carried out the war on terror. That is definitely not what Obama had in mind when he ran for office.

The time has come then for the reset of Obama’s reset. Ben Rhodes, his deputy national security advisor, has been holding meetings on how to revive and rethink engagement policy, which sounds like a painfully modest first step on the path to legacy. Surely there’s something bigger and bolder out there. There has been, of course, no lack of kibitzing on the subject. The Brookings Institution has just published a briefing memo titled "Big Bets and Black Swans." This is arguably a paradoxical endeavor because Brookings is the very font of cautious mainstream thinking. In some cases, in fact, the big bets look more like nickel antes. The first of the proposals is that the president should "rebalance judiciously the rebalancing strategy" in China. On defense spending, Brookings advises Obama to "pursue relatively modest savings from additional efficiencies" rather than "seek fairly dramatic changes." In other words, the little bet.

Brookings offers some good advice that Obama probably won’t take (a diplomatic restart with Iran, arming Syrian rebels) and some that he might (relaxing sanctions on Cuba, brokering disputes in the South China Sea). Tellingly, Middle East peace, the favorite big bet of all recent presidents, does not make the cut — for the very good reason that the chances of success are so low. My favorite proposal is that Obama lay out and open for debate a doctrine for the use of new weapons, above all drones, as President Harry Truman and President Dwight Eisenhower sought to do with the atomic bomb. If drones are going to be part of Obama’s legacy, then so too should be the establishment of a domestic and international legal and regulatory framework for their use.

I have, however, a modest proposal of my own: a climate deal with China. Climate change is a more urgent problem than nuclear proliferation. Obama is deeply seized with the subject, as is John Kerry, his all-but-confirmed secretary of state. Hurricane Sandy was a seminal moment, having something of the effect on public opinion that the Sandy Hook school shooting has had on gun control; wait a few months, and more calamities will push the public further still. The United States and China, which together produce almost half of global carbon dioxide emissions, are the key to solving the problem. Congress has refused to take any serious steps so long as the major emerging countries — above all China — fail to do so, but U.S. inaction provides an indispensable pretext for Chinese hesitation. No one wants to move without the other.

At the same time, there is tremendous activity on both sides, both at the private-sector level and at the state level. California has a cap-and-trade system, while nine Northeastern states have agreed to reduce emissions from power plants. In China, six provinces have begun pilot cap-and-trade programs. There is more "bottom-up" than "top-down" progress in both countries. A climate agreement could coordinate and accelerate that progress. William Antholis, a former trade and climate negotiator for President Clinton now at Brookings, suggests as a "middle bar" a bilateral framework that would promote cooperation between the two countries at the state and provincial levels as well as joint programs on auto-emissions standards, natural gas technology, alternative-energy research, and the like. Such a pact could include specific targets for emission reductions or improvements in "energy intensity" — emissions per unit of energy.

Of such useful but modest steps, however, legacies are not made. And we will be living in a very hot world by the time these measures have taken full effect. Because neither country appears prepared to adopt a national cap-and-trade system, the "high bar," says Antholis, would be a joint agreement to impose a carbon tax. This could counteract the effect of growing U.S. oil and gas production by making conservation measures and the use of alternative-energy sources more appealing (another one of the Brookings "big bets," by the way). And of course it would apply to each country, not just to particular states and provinces. There may be no other way of bending the curve of global emissions growth downward quickly enough to avoid catastrophic changes in the environment. This would have the added benefit of providing a sense of common purpose and common interest to the United States’ contentious relationship with China.

Since Beijing surely would not bind itself until Washington does, Congress would almost certainly have to pass such a measure in order for China to sign. That would be quite a heavy political lift. Republicans would insist that such a measure be revenue-neutral, which is to say that it would have to be offset by a tax cut and thus could not be used to invest in, say, alternative-energy development. But that’s self-defeating: The American people, as I’ve said before, will accept serious climate change measures as an opportunity for growth and bold change, not as a sacrifice or punishment. The highest of the high bars would thus be a deal with China, bringing with it a carbon tax and new investment.

That would require mighty deft diplomacy both at home and abroad — though now that we’re on the subject of legacy, it’s hard to imagine a more lasting one for a Secretary Kerry. Both Kerry and Obama will, in fact, want to lay a big bet somewhere. I say, let’s wait for a few more hurricanes and droughts, and then get to work.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book "John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit."

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