Foreign Policy Challenges Facing the Next American President
November 8, 2016
Adapted from a lecture to the Honors Forum at Templeton Honors College, Eastern University, November 4, 2016
I want to begin by saying what I am not going to do. I will not explicitly make a case for any particular presidential candidate. Instead, I will attempt to sketch the international situation facing the next president and also the skills that person will need to demonstrate in order to face the challenges posed by that international situation. If at the end of this essay, readers have a clearer sense of which candidate will be better suited to face the world on January 20, 2017, then so much the better—readers can register that choice in the silence of their hearts and in the solitude of the voting booth. If they are reading this after November 9, they are welcome to forward its conclusions to the next occupant of the Oval Office.
Foreign policy plays a paradoxical role in U.S. presidential elections. As a global power with historically unparalleled influence, the United States and its elections occupy a central position in the world’s attention. Added to that is the constitutional fact that the president, acting as an individual and as the head of a vast foreign and security policy apparatus, is in a position to shape foreign policy more profoundly than domestic affairs, where the president is hemmed in by both Congress and the Supreme Court. Furthermore, a glance at the news indicates that the world is at least as complicated as ever, and the American ability to influence world events has declined much more rapidly than the American interest in how events proceed. Nevertheless, the outside world and specific foreign policy issues have rarely been the basis for significant campaign debate or discussion. Although candidates have been happy to attack each other over whether they voted for war in Iraq more than a dozen years ago or over the use of incantational phrases such as “Radical Islamic Terrorism” or “Benghazi,” foreign policy has been, at best, tangential to the race compared to questions about domestic affairs, taxes and spending, cultural issues, or the Twitter and email habits of the rich, famous, and powerful.
That is not intended as either a complaint or even a criticism; it is a statement of fact about American political life. One could say this is a return to a longstanding tradition, as Americans, feeling insulated from much of the world, often prefer to believe foreign policy is optional, and that too much attention to foreign people and their concerns is vaguely disreputable. More concretely, it is the continuation of a pattern that has held since the end of the Cold War. Even as the United States has been engaged in multiple wars for the past fifteen years, foreign policy has become largely disconnected from the ideological ebb and flow of presidential politics. One can find conservatives insisting on the need to pull back from foreign entanglements, and liberals calling for intervention, just as one can now find liberals warning of the looming Russian threat as conservatives call for more understanding of the Russian perspective on events. Since there is little concrete electoral advantage to be gained in identifying with one side or the other, we have lost what ideological predictability once existed in discussions of foreign affairs.
Ever since Bill Clinton managed to defeat perhaps the most successful international statesman ever to sit in the Oval Office by references to supermarket scanners and his firm belief that “It’s the Economy, Stupid,” presidential candidates have avoided detailed discussions of foreign policy, lest they appear to be insufficiently connected to the lives and concerns of voters. Certainly, challengers for the office have attacked incumbents for morally or materially weakening the United States, but more often than not they have claimed that their policy will be more restrained or sensible, without going into unnecessary detail—George W. Bush promised to be ‘humble” in 2000; John Kerry called for more “nuance” in 2004. There is not much evidence that foreign policy moves the needle electorally, and thus very little concrete advantage to be gained by talking about it more than is absolutely necessary to appear conversant with the most current crisis.
Thus, it’s not necessary to have a detailed plan for solving the Syrian crisis, for example, but it can still hurt your chances if you are not familiar with the name of the city of Aleppo—as Gary Johnson can attest.
President Obama himself embodied this paradox. Although he was more than willing to emphasize his transnational sophistication and played upon the world’s enthusiasm for his candidacy—most famously in his Berlin speech of July 2008—his campaign built on a domestic coalition that was not terribly interested in traditional foreign policy. Outside of the desire to pull back from disastrous wars and his promise not to do stupid things, Obama’s campaign reflected an electorate that viewed foreign policy as the preserve of a vaguely sinister elite. Without emphasizing specifics, but contrasting his cosmopolitanism with the calamitous unilateralism of his predecessor, Obama promised his election would improve the American global image. And it did indeed, for a time. Remember, the Nobel Committee awarded him its Peace Prize in honor of what he represented, an award that even embarrassed its awardee, who attempted in his eminently practical acceptance lecture to dampen some of the enthusiasm his candidacy had inspired.
Once in office, of course, President Obama has discovered, as every president does, that foreign policy will take up a great deal of his time and that the world’s actors may not all be as susceptible to his charms. Obama promised to reorder international affairs through new openings to adversaries, improved relations with partners, and judicious retrenchment of American commitments. He made a serious effort to accomplish all three. The results have been mixed, to put it charitably, though many issues proved simply beyond his control. He has had notable successes— some universally celebrated (such as the reckoning with Osama bin Laden); some of great symbolic significance with unclear consequences (such as the reestablishment of relations with Cuba); and some controversial, that have yet to bear the larger geopolitical fruit they had promised (such as the nuclear deal with Iran). But even if he cannot be held responsible for all that has gone awry, he also bequeaths to his successor a world that is in some ways in greater disarray than the world he inherited in 2009.
Simply to list the current challenges is to see how difficult the next president will have it. Generally, even as the American economy is in the midst of a mild but notable recovery, the industrialized world still struggles with slow growth and the political conflicts that brings. Even formerly reliable engines of global growth such as China appear to be entering a slow period, with the possibility of a harder landing in the future if current property and debt bubbles pop.
America’s longest war in Afghanistan drags on. Obama had claimed this was the important war (in contrast to the unnecessary war in Iraq) and that he would devote his attention to its resolution. But they don’t call Afghanistan the “graveyard of empires” for nothing. Even as American forces withdraw, endemic corruption and continued Taliban activity leave that unhappy land teetering on the edge of returning to its formerly failed state.
Iraq, which Obama hoped to have resolved as well, has also proven intractable. The decision to follow through on the plan to withdraw American troops by 2011 has backfired. The government in Baghdad, unwilling to agree to the status of forces agreement that would have kept an American contingent in the country, also proved incapable (and unwilling) to heal Iraq’s sectarian divide. Baghdad’s failure has fed the rise of ISIS and has required the United States to remain militarily involved. Even though significant American ground forces are not connected to the attack on Mosul, the US Air Force remains the primary source of airpower to fight Islamic extremists. Far from ending the American role in Iraq, the Obama administration has merely presided over its modification. It will be up to the next president to decide how, when, or if it is possible to disengage the United States from Iraq completely.
Meanwhile, despite his promises to avoid repeating the mistakes of his predecessors, Obama did get the United States involved in a regime change operation in Libya. That attempt to “lead from behind” was largely designed to support our European and Arab allies, but relied heavily on American airpower. After the bombing stopped and the dictator Gaddafi was gone, however, neither the Americans nor Europeans established a presence in Libya to oversee its democratic transition. Born of a desire to avoid another Iraq, the Libya adventure produced a different, but equally calamitous sort of chaos. Whatever one thinks of the days of bloody violence that led to the deaths of four Americans at Benghazi, it is clear that the Libyan operation is proof of neither the Obama administration’s ability to avoid international entanglements nor its superior wisdom on how they should be concluded.
And then there is Syria. ISIS is an issue here, but even more so is the question of how the Obama administration’s promised new engagement with Iran and the Arab world should play out. It appears that initially the Obama administration hoped Syria’s peaceful revolution could proceed without American intervention. When that turned out not to be the case, Washington remained reluctant to engage militarily. This stemmed from an understandable desire to avoid getting involved in a conflict with no clear endgame, and also to avoid expanding the war in Iraq, but also reflected the Obama administration’s desire not to provoke Iran by appearing to act too aggressively against Tehran’s client in Damascus. Unfortunately, staying out of the conflict has not proven to be any more successful in preventing chaos and violence than intervention elsewhere has been. Obama’s decision to ignore his redlines over the use of chemical weapons is understandable in light of basic American reluctance to intervene in Syria. The challenge for Obama has been, and the problem for his successor will be, to figure out how, if at all, the United States can help bring the fighting in Syria to a reasonable conclusion without completely alienating allies or adversaries, or doing further harm to alleged American principles of adherence to international law and human rights.
This continuing conflict in the Middle East takes place despite the Obama administration’s oft-proclaimed desire to de-prioritize that region and to begin its much trumpeted pivot to Asia. The pivot aims at either containing or engaging China—depending upon whom you ask. At any rate, it requires the United States to devote new resources and attention to the region. As of this writing, the pivot is still suspended in midair. Neither China nor the United States is completely sure what it will mean. The fact that both major presidential candidates have rejected the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an economic deal between the United States and a dozen Asian countries (excluding China) that Obama intended to be a linchpin of the pivot raises further questions about the ultimate fate of this new strategy.
Europe, which had for so long been the centerpiece of American foreign policy, had fallen down the list of American concerns when Obama took office. Sympathetic analysts supposed the Continent to be so stable that the United States could easily reduce its commitment there, while more critical voices, tired of European reluctance to support the American military action in Iraq, dismissed Europe as an irrelevant irritant. Indeed, although President Obama’s popularity with the Europeans was considered a major plus in his campaign, the administration has not embarked on many successful initiatives in Europe. There had been high hopes for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a massive free trade deal between the US and EU. But it had been pushed behind the TPP on Washington’s agenda and now appears as endangered as its unloved Asian counterpart. Europe itself has been beset by economic crises, marked both by the ongoing agony of the Euro in places such as Greece and by the British decision to “Brexit” the EU altogether. Furthermore, a previously neglected Russia, with whom Obama had hoped to “reset” relations, has challenged the European status quo by pushing back against both the EU and NATO. By annexing Crimea and encouraging separatists in eastern Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s government in Moscow has thrown down a gauntlet to the West, leaving open the question of how the United States and its allies should respond.
All in all, a complicated world, in which American interests are challenged from every angle. Considering the economic situation, we may be in a slightly better position than we were in January 2009, but it is hard to say we are any better off than we were at the start of 2011, before the rise of ISIS, the euro crisis, and the conflagration in Ukraine. Again, it is important to note that these challenges cannot all be blamed on President Obama. The fact that things have been so difficult despite the enormous international good will that greeted Obama on his inauguration should remind us that even the most popular and appealing president cannot expect that the world will go out of its way to do him (or her) any favors.
The central theme of the Obama administration’s foreign policy has been to recognize the relative decline of American power and to manage a retrenchment and reallocation of resources. That spirit resonates with the policies of the two major presidential candidates. Hillary Clinton may be more conventionally hawkish than her former boss, but has also emphasized the need for “smart power” that recognizes limits. Meanwhile, Donald Trump speaks a language of force and promises to put “America First,” but also appears to embrace a retreat from traditional alliance commitments to reduce the cost of American actions abroad. Thus, both of them in their own way signal a continued retrenchment, a position increasingly popular with scholarly analysts of American foreign policy as well.
There is the rub, however, for the next president. Real retrenchment does not mean complete disengagement; it means managing the reduction of American commitments in sensible ways and relying on diplomacy more than military force. Such retrenchment cannot be unilateral since any precipitate action may spark crises that will require re-insertion of American power. Iraq is but the most obvious example.
Thus, alliances become more, not less, important for a United States that recognizes limits on its power to act unilaterally. The problem is that traditional U.S. allies in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East are themselves going through crises that have left them uncertain. Europeans are divided over Brexit and the continuing weakness of the EU. Brexiteers, such as British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, argue that leaving the EU has nothing to do with the British commitment to NATO. Nevertheless, continuing disagreement among the major European powers does not bode well for their solidarity in dealing with crises, whether those crises are as far away as Afghanistan or as close as Ukraine and the Baltic states.
Asians watch nervously as China asserts its hegemony in the South China Sea, but are not sure whether to join or fight them. The current drama surrounding Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte is but the most colorful proof of the ambivalence felt by Asian states caught between a rising China and a declining United States. The abandonment of TPP, product purely of American domestic politics, will do significant damage to American relationships in the region unless the next president can reassure nervous Filipinos, Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese, and their neighbors.
In the Middle East, ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Syria have already exposed tensions between American partners such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. For the Saudis, the sectarian struggle in Yemen is a proxy war against Shiite Iran, a war in which they are prepared to fight with all the ferocity American-supplied munitions can deliver. The apocalyptic violence of ISIS has not succeeded in bringing about the promised Global Caliphate, but has accomplished the near-miraculous feat of pushing the Israel-Palestine issue far down the list of Middle East priorities, even as it has also encouraged a silent, half-embarrassed rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Israel. A détente that once would have been greeted with loud hosannas, however, is cause for broader concern, as it is overshadowed by the possibility of an overt conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran for control of the Gulf each of them claims to name.
Rivals to American dominance see in this range of challenges an equal number of opportunities to revise the international system. None of them necessarily wants to replace the United States as the global guarantor. But they welcome the chance to expand their regional power at the expense of the old American-led order, and thus claim a slice of power within a new multipolar world.
Embodying two decades of resentment over the loss of the Cold War and smarting from Barack Obama’s condescending references to Russia as a “regional power,” Vladimir Putin wants to restore Russian self-respect and Russia’s global role. That means not only trying to undermine or even roll back NATO and the EU, but also re-asserting Russia’s role in Middle East by coming to the rescue of Bashar al-Assad. Combining heavy-handed shows of force in Syria and Crimea with semi-deniable pinpricks such as the hacking of American political figures, Putin has looked for any opportunity to emphasize Russian capabilities, even as cratering oil prices and endemic corruption undermine the legitimacy of his regime. Putin does not want war with the United States, but he does see an advantage in dancing on the brink, relying on American reluctance to fight in hopes of seeking some future accommodation on the basis of rough geopolitical equality.
China, which is playing a much stronger hand than Russia, also seeks further recognition as a global player though is not interested in supplanting the United States altogether. Beijing would like to have a freer hand in East and Southeast Asia and is interested in expanding its political and economic reach into Central Asia as well. In emphasizing its devotion to national sovereignty, Xi Jinping’s government hopes to foreclose Western complaints about human rights violations. At the same time, however, Chinese officials leave no doubt that they believe that great powers—such as China and the United States, and perhaps Russia—should be free to act as they see fit without allowing the complaints of smaller states (who may claim their own sovereign rights) to get in the way. China, like Russia, seeks a grand bargain with the United States, in which Washington concedes more influence to its fellow great powers and allows China to pursue its interests with minimal interference.
Iran wants to regain its regional influence and return to the international community after years of sanctions and suspicion. Ironically, this was part of the Obama administration’s goal for re-stabilizing the Middle East. Obama hoped that offering Iran an “open hand” would lead to Iranian concessions in return and thus went out of his way to mute criticism of the Islamic Republic and to push hard for the conclusion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear program. Under pressure from his European allies, not to mention Russia and China, who made clear that their support for further sanctions was time limited, Obama realized that a deal needed to be made. He also hoped that focusing on the single question of the Iranian nuclear research program while leaving other political and military questions (Syria, Yemen, or even Iran’s missile program) for another time would be worth the gamble if the result was a generalized regional détente. Like the pivot to Asia, this gamble is still in mid-air, as Iran has proven more interested in pocketing its winnings than re-investing them in further peace moves. It is not impossible to imagine an eventual détente, but it still seems a long way off. Deciding how much to gamble for how much longer will be left to the next president.
Terror groups such as ISIS pose an ongoing threat, but do not rise to the significance of these other global challengers. Their greatest potential lies in the chaos they can sow in regions where it is already in heavy supply though the security and police apparatus of the West will have to remain vigilant.
This is necessarily a brief sketch of the world situation. One could add other issues from the global (climate change, economic inequality, the future of world trade, managing migration) to the regional (the slow-motion collapse of Venezuela, the death of democracy in Turkey and Eastern Europe, the crises of governance in Africa) to the long to-do list of the next president. Whatever one chooses to add, none of the world’s immediate problems lend themselves to simple solutions. It is not simply a matter of being more personally appealing, more willing to use force, more radical in asserting national interest, or more skilled in wielding this or that geopolitical catch phrase.
The next president will have to continue to manage relative American decline. That means dealing with domestic issues such as political gridlock and long-term fiscal policy, while setting longer-term priorities. It means deciding on the appropriate level of military spending to deal with those crises the United States considers within its interest. Dealing with potential rivals will require a clear-eyed sense of what is and is not negotiable and also will require an ability to avoid reflexive aggression or reflexive concessions.
Both presidential candidates have claimed to be realistic, but realism means more than simply pulling back. When expressed by some candidates and scholars, realism suggests suspicion of allies and alliances, who are blamed for drawing the US into unnecessary conflicts. But if we hope to reduce American geopolitical burdens, honest and sensible alliances with trusted partners are essential. Those alliances can only flourish if the United States and its allies are willing to share both the burdens and the prizes. Americans have often complained of allied free riding, but have just as often shrunk back from the idea of participating in any action where someone else may be in charge. True realism must encourage rethinking that reflex.
If the next president hopes to manage ongoing crises and chart a course for the future, that president, and the American people, will have to make difficult choices. That means deciding what we do and do not want to do, where we do and do not want to be involved, and, most importantly of all, what we are comfortable allowing others to do. For if we step back, others will step forward, for better or worse. The United States is still a global power, and the president is still one of the most powerful individuals in the world. But that power is limited and is becoming more limited with every passing day. That is the reality of the world we will all face on January 20, 2017.