Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Foreign Policy Challenges for the New Administration

Foreign Policy Challenges for the New Administration

Our national debate on foreign policy and national security is going to be extremely important to our country over the next several years. I felt that the election was going to be more important in national security terms over the coming years than was reflected during the debates in the election itself.

Obviously, just as the current economic turmoil dominated the last two months of the campaign, so too it will dominate at least in the media the coverage of the transition and the opening months or possibly even years of President-elect Obama’s time in office.

But the fact is, as obviously important as the economic health of the country is, foreign policy and national security will remain at the top of the agenda as they have to for any president. Because it really is the president who has the principal responsibility for guiding our nation’s foreign affairs. And these challenges that the new president will face aren’t waiting around for us to resolve our economic problems. I want to cover some of them here in what inevitably will be an inadequate presentation, because there are so many.

Now to be sure, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, we don’t face the daily civilizational challenge that we faced from the prospect of an exchange of nuclear salvos between the U.S. and the then Soviet Union. That truly existential threat to our existence doesn’t exist anymore. But too many people have concluded that the collapse of communism effectively meant that challenges to the U.S. overseas had somehow been reduced to just above the noise level, and that there was nothing so serious that couldn’t be taken care of in diplomatic exchanges and that there were no threats that couldn’t be resolved through reasoned discourse.

That isn’t the case for us, and it’s certainly not the case for many of our friends and allies around the world, to whom even countries that some might judge to be small threats are very large threats. So the nature of the world we live in has changed, and while the civilizational threat may be extinguished, the number of adversaries we face in the world and the complexity of international affairs if anything has increased.

The decisions the new administration makes will affect us not just during President-elect Obama’s term, but in some cases for decades to come. I could organize this in a number of different ways; being a true admirer of Edmund Burke, I’m not going to try to present it in grand themes but in specifics, because I think it is in analyzing the concrete challenges that you can see more clearly how difficult the choices are.


Russia is significant not only because of the nature of the regime and its interests overseas, but because President Medvedev within 24 hours of our election seized on the opportunity to win the first annual Joe Biden Award to challenge the president-elect with a crisis that he manufactured, in my view specifically to test the mettle of the incoming administration.

This is something the Russians had thought about, I believe, and I think it’s a part of a pattern of their behavior that we’ve seen over the past several years. The forewarning of this was given I think three years ago by then Russian president Vladimir Putin, now the prime minister but still Number 1 inside the Kremlin, when he said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.

Most of us would probably think that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a pretty good way to end the 20th century. But that obviously is not the mood in the top leadership in Moscow. I think we will look back on the events just of this past August, when Russian forces invaded the tiny bordering country of Georgia, as the first step in an effort by the Russian leadership to reverse that catastrophe, to if not reestablish the territory of the former Soviet Union/Russian Empire, at least to make clear that Russia would have hegemony within the space of the former Soviet Union.

The question of who provoked that particular military conflict is something people will argue about for a long time, but just as who started which border skirmish in which obscure part of the world led to larger conflicts, just as those debates fade into history, the central fact that emerges from the August 2008 Georgia crisis was that Russia was prepared with an obviously well-planned military operation, and if the provocation hadn’t come from President Saakashvili on August 6-7, it would have come on September 6-7 or October 6-7 or whenever it turned out to be convenient for Russian forces to move into the country.

I think this was a clear effort to send a signal to other parts of the former Soviet Union, and it also had an important geostrategic objective of demonstrating that Russia could seize the only oil and gas pipeline route out of the Caspian Sea region that didn’t already run through Russia or Iran. In part, Russia reacted because it saw a weakness on NATO’s part in spring of 2008. President Bush had proposed putting both Georgia and Ukraine on the path to NATO membership. Through a formal NATO decision, our European allies led by Germany rejected that. I think that while they covered it over with words about ultimately bringing Ukraine and Georgia in, Moscow saw that decision as a real sign of weakness. While I do not want to overstate the comparison, what drew my attention was the parallel between the famous National Press Club speech Dean Acheson gave in January 1950 describing the Western defense perimeter of the U.S. that unfortunately left out South Korea, followed in June 1950 by the North Korean invasion of South Korea.

We have very little time left in the Bush administration. I don’t think that NATO’s decision will be corrected. But I think it’s something the next administration is going to have to ask very clearly, whether it wants a vacuum between the eastern border of the NATO alliance and the western border of Russia. That vacuum gives rise to the potential for instability and to the possibility for further Russian adventurism. I think that has been corroborated in the days since the election, when we’ve seen President Medvedev create a challenge to the new administration by threatening to deploy Russian ballistic missiles in the Kaliningrad enclave, a little sliver of Russian territory bordering on Poland, targeted at the missile defense base that the Bush administration and the government of Poland had agreed to establish. I think this was a carefully chosen decision by the Russian government, which could have seen in President-elect Obama’s campaign position on missile defense what one could euphemistically call constructive ambiguity, what a less charitable interpretation would call weakness. They want to challenge the new administration in a very direct way to see what the reaction will be.

In fact, yesterday Russia made it even clearer by saying that they didn’t plan to negotiate with the Bush administration on missile defense anymore, they were going to wait until January 20. And today, to reinforce the point, President Medvedev said that he would be willing to consider undeploying Russia’s missiles in the Kaliningrad if we would not deploy missile defenses into Poland.

If President-elect Obama carries through on where I think his real instincts lie on missile defense, which is not to continue it, I think in Moscow they will read that as responding to the threat and indeed the intimidation reflected in Medvedev’s speeches. I do not know what the new administration will do, but I know that President-elect Obama and Polish president Lech Kaczynski emerged from a conversation they held several days ago with very different impressions as to what was actually said. So we’ve had the first public disagreement between the president-elect and the head of a NATO ally on the missile defense question.

This is only one area where we and the Russian have difficulties. Others include Georgia and Ukraine and the whole question of the territory of the former Soviet Union; Russia’s unhelpfulness in what we have loosely called the Middle East peace process for many years; its cover for Iran’s nuclear weapons program in the Security Council; and its weapons sales into difficult, contentious areas of the world is another. There are also potential areas of cooperation, such as exchanging information on terrorism, where we have had good success with Russia. We can certainly say that one of the many benefits of the collapse in the global oil price, which is now below $60/barrel, is that it has put a major constraint on Russian efforts to modernize their conventional military forces and upgrade their strategic nuclear forces. But the way the new administration handles Russia will have enormous consequences not just for us, but on our friends in Europe, too, too many of whom think that with the end of the Cold War they have passed beyond history and no longer need to be concerned with threats outside of their region. In fact, Europe is actually more vulnerable now because of its dependence on Russian oil and natural gas. That dependence is what led to weakness in Germany and others when considering what to do with Georgia and Ukraine. So the new administration will not have a lot of time to consider the question of Moscow’s capabilities and intentions, because they’re already on the table right now.


Potentially, over time, the U.S.-Sino relationship could be an even more difficult relationship for the U.S. Many in America, especially in the business community, believe that our relations with China over the next several decades are going to be peaceful, benign, largely based on economics. They look at China’s rapid economic growth over the past twenty years and extrapolate that out into the future, as China’s economy soon overtaking the U.S., but basically China having what the Chinese themselves call a peaceful rise and playing a constructive role in international affairs.

That is one possible and desirable, but not an inevitable, scenario. To think that it is inevitable is delusory. Let’s take a somewhat longer timeframe if we’re going to extrapolate from Chinese history. Instead of twenty years, let’s take the past century. As my colleague Jim Lilly at AEI, our former ambassador to China, says, it’s been a tough century for the Chinese. They had the fall of the last imperial dynasty, the first establishment of the Republic of China, the first collapse of the ROC, the warlord period, the return of authoritarian rule, the Japanese invasion and occupation, the civil war between the communists and the nationalists, the defeat of the Japanese, the second establishment of the ROC, the second fall of the ROC, the retreat of the nationalists to Taiwan, the institution of the People’s Republic of China, then in the 1950s the Great Leap Forward, the single worst economic decision in history, which killed 30 million people, followed in the 1960s by the great proletarian Cultural Revolution, during which more Chinese culture was destroyed in a single period of time than in all of China’s history; then Tiananmen Square in 1989, then twenty years of economic growth.

If you take that century and extrapolate it, you have the prospect of another century of radical discontinuities in internal Chinese affairs and its role in the external world. That is not a very comforting scenario, and it’s wildly different in its potential from the so-called peaceful rise. When we consider that the major political force inside China’s still-ruling communist party is the PLA, this ought to give us pause before we conclude too quickly that China’s role in international affairs will be benign. China is rapidly increasing its conventional military capabilities, enhancing its blue-water navy and submarine forces, potentially challenging American predominance in the western Pacific for the first time since 1945. It’s expanding its strategic nuclear forces and its ballistic missile forces, all of which do not lead inevitably to the conclusion that it will be belligerent, but which certainly gives them a stronger capability.

An American president’s decisions are not going to be central in determining China’s future course, but how to handle China and the widely varying prospects that it has as options before it need the highest level of presidential attention. Whether and to what extent we’ll see that unfold over the next couple of years is very hard to know.


Other comparable kinds of questions arise on how to deal with India, with the paradox of an evolving democratic society with nuclear weapons locked in a six-decade long struggle with Pakistan on the Indian subcontinent, also a nuclear power, where they have fought three wars since independence and where there’s every prospect if another war breaks out that it could go nuclear fairly quickly. There’s how to deal with our friends in the European Union, who have felt for so many years that their continued political integration will create an alternative pole in the world to the U.S., where we can see today that this effort at political integration has in fact left us with an EU that’s less than the sum of its part, that takes so long to reach consensus on its policies that ultimately it acts more ineffectively in international affairs than when its nations act on their own, and which faces its own demographic crisis. So far from Europe being a rising alternative pole to the U.S., I think the real issue over the next decades will be the relative decline of influence of Europe in the world as a whole, which will be very different for us and for them as well.

Middle East

Then there are the more immediate issues that will press on President Obama when he takes the oath of office. Certainly a couple of years ago, if you had projected ahead talking about foreign policy the week after the election, most people would have predicted that we would be talking almost exclusively about Iraq. It’s funny how a successful strategy can drive success of the front pages of the newspapers, but in fact the success of the surge strategy in reducing violence in Iraq, working for greater political cohesion within the Iraqi system, is now very much up in the air as American forces withdraw as we know that they will if President-elect Obama fulfills his campaign pledges. This raises the critical question whether the levels of trust with Sunnis and Kurds that our military has been able to establish can be transferred to the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. If this withdrawal is not carried out very carefully and prudently, and not in a hasty or disorganized fashion, those relationships of trust could fail and we could see in Iraq a return to the kind of instability we saw in the years immediately after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Not only would that have extraordinarily negative consequences for the people of Iraq, but it would almost invariably mean a large increase in the influence of Iran, a large increase both inside Iraq and in the region as a whole. The consequences of mistakes in Iraq now have the possibility of extending throughout the Middle East as a whole, with extraordinary consequences for our friends in the region—not just Israel, although that is of central importance, but for the Arab states as well. Over the past twenty years, Iran has been the world’s largest financier of international terrorism, and has been pursuing in a clandestine fashion a deliverable nuclear weapons capability.

The combination of nuclear capabilities and its level of support for terrorism would give Iran a disproportionate influence throughout the Persian Gulf and in the Middle East as a whole. Although we’ve seen this remarkable decline in the price of oil, just imagine what direction the price of oil will go in if Iran is able to increase its influence to that extent.

Nuclear Weapons

That brings us to the question of dealing with Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Here we will have I think as close as you can get in international affairs to a laboratory experiment. President-elect Obama said in the campaign that he would sit down with the leaders of Iran and other rogue states without preconditions to negotiate with them about their nuclear weapons programs. I believe that if he carries through on that, we will see in very graphic terms what the consequences of real naivete in international affairs can be.

This is going to be perhaps the central difference in the Obama presidency between his approach and President Bush’s. The fact is that negotiation with Iran is not a new idea. The Europeans—the British, French, and Germans, or the EU3—have been negotiating with Iran for 5-1/2 years. Everyone, and specifically the Iranian leadership, has known that the Europeans were negotiating as our surrogates. The Iranians knew from the outset of these negotiations that if they gave up their pursuit of nuclear weapons, they would have a different relationship not just with the Europeans, but with the U.S.

Three years ago we made that even more explicit then before when we told the Iranians that if they complied with the same conditions the Europeans had asked for, i.e. Iran would suspend its uranium enrichment program, that the U.S. would sit down at the table with Iran, even though they were still on our list of state sponsors of terrorism and even though that would violate the general commitment we have not to negotiate with terrorism. So important did we think the nuclear question was, we would be prepared to do that.

For this entire 5-1/2 year period, Iran has consistently said with a few blips that it would not suspend its uranium enrichment. They knew, because our European friends provided every incentive they could think of, what the options were and what they had to do to get into negotiations with the U.S. They declined to do so. The reason for that is that negotiation, like every other human activity, has costs as well as benefits. If negotiations never had any cost, then the people who would say “Why don’t we sit down and talk to the Iranians? What have we got to lose?” would be right. The answer would be, “You don’ t have anything to lose.” But because negotiations do have benefits and cost, you have to look at both sides of the equation before you adopt the policy. And the Iranians, over the course of more than five years of European negotiation efforts, have gained an asset more precious than anything else they could have, something they couldn’t have bought for love or money: they got time. For the would-be proliferator, time is the critical asset: time to overcome the complex scientific and technological difficulties that stand in the way of achieving the objective of a deliverable nuclear weapon. During all these years of European negotiations, the Iranians solved the problem of uranium conversion from a solid to a gas; they solved the problem of uranium enrichment to get it up to reactor-grade levels; and by all that we can tell, they’ve come a long way to solving the problem of how to put a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile to make it deliverable at long range. That’s what negotiation has given Iran.

Will Iran welcome U.S. negotiations now? You bet! This is like catnip. It will give them as much time as they need to complete whatever they have to finish to get that deliverable nuclear weapons capability.

There’s one wrinkle in this scenario, and that is that although I see no prospect of the Bush administration in its remaining months in office using military force against Iran’s nuclear program, we are not the only actor. Twice before the government of Israel has struck at nuclear programs in nearby states that they felt threatened their existence: first in 1991 by the destroying the Osirak reactor outside of Baghdad, and second in September 2007 by destroying a North Korean reactor in Syria.

North Korea

I’ve spent much of the last eight years trying to convince people that North Korea is an important Middle Eastern power. That is because of its record as the world’s biggest proliferator of ballistic missile technology and now we know as one of the principal proliferators of nuclear technology. It is inconceivable to me that Syria and North Korea would have been cooperating on a nuclear program such as building a reactor without at a minimum Iranian acquiescence and quite possibly financing. So the idea of an axis of evil is more than a metaphor. This pattern of cooperation between North Korea and Iran, North Korea and Syria, shows why the North Korean program is a threat not only in northeast Asia, which it very much is, but in the Middle East as well.

Of course, North Korea is another case where negotiation has actually been under way for nearly six years, and where the North Koreans have yet to show in a meaningful way any indication that they’ve made a strategic decision to give up their nuclear weapons program. So both the North Korean and Iranian programs will be on the table for President-elect Obama when he takes office. How he handles those issues will be critical not only for North Korea and Iran, but for many other states as well. This is what we mean by proliferation. Everyone is watching—in East Asia and in the Middle East—to see if we are able to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon or roll back the existing North Korean capability. If we fail, they will draw the appropriate conclusions, and the number of states seeking nuclear weapons will rise. In the Pacific, it may be that Japan would consider obtaining nuclear weapons, and the Middle East there’s a long list of countries that would obtain nuclear weapons if Iran did, including possibly Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.

This issue that President-elect Obama addressed very directly in his campaign and the way he is proposing to handle it is something that could well determine the future of American security and the security of our friends and allies in the affected regions for years to come. This is not to say that it’s impossible negotiations could succeed. After all, Libya gave up its nuclear weapons program entirely after the overthrow of Saddam, when Qaddafi incorrectly drew the conclusion that he might be next. The way we handled Libya demonstrates that if a country is serious about giving up its nuclear weapons program, it could have a different relationship with the U.S. So this will be a very important test for President-elect Obama.

Right now, the Libyan nuclear weapons program sits in Oakridge, TN, a very appropriate place for it. There’s a lot of room right next to it for the Iranian and North Korean nuclear weapons programs if they get serious about it, as well.

We’ll have to see how the new president acts. There’s no lack of challenges for him and his new administration. This will be a time of great testing for the U.S. It may not be a time where we want that testing, we may want to deal more with our own economic problems, look more inside ourselves, or withdraw more from the world while we deal with these challenging domestic issues. But that option is just not open to us. It will be very important to see whether the Obama administration realizes that or whether it takes a different view. Only time will tell.