Fact Sheet: Fifteen Foreign-Policy Challenges For the Next President
By Usha Sahay, Rachel Murawski, and Eve Hunter
The October 22 presidential debate on national security will cover Afghanistan and Pakistan, Israel and Iran, China, the Middle East, as well as the general issue of “America’s role in the world.” These issues have made headlines in 2012, and been prominent on the campaign trail. But, there are a number of other important and difficult foreign policy decisions awaiting the next president, issues that we are unlikely to hear about in the debates. In a number of instances, President Obama has deliberately set issues aside, preferring to handle them after the election. This is an unfortunate reality of American electoral politics, one that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad noted: “I do believe that some conversations and key issues must be talked about again once we come out of the other end of the political election atmosphere in the United States.”
Ahmadinejad’s statement backs up what President Obama himself said to then-President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev in March, during a discussion of European missile defense. Not realizing that his microphone was on, Obama told Medvedev, “This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility.” Without question, after the election, a number of foreign policy problems will demand the attention of whichever candidate is inaugurated on January 20. Here is the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation’s list (in no particular order) of the fifteen most pressing issues that the next President must confront:
Russia & New START
Russia is neither a Cold War foe nor a staunch ally, which requires the U.S. president to engage in a constant balancing act. Obama’s 2009 “reset” led to US-Russia cooperation on Iran sanctions, Russia’s induction into the World Trade Organization, and the New START arms reduction treaty. Since then, though, relations have become rocky over key areas of disagreement, such as the conflict in Syria and missile defense in Europe. In the most recent indication of tension, Russia refused to renew the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, an ongoing initiative to secure loose nuclear materials. To gain Russian cooperation in a follow-on treaty to New START, as well as on Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, and other issues, the next president will need to improve US-Russia relations, starting with the negotiation of a mutually acceptable missile defense deal.
Afghanistan & Pakistan
68,000 American troops remain in Afghanistan at this time. Combat operations are to end in 2014, but the schedule for troop withdrawal has not yet been set, and the U.S. may maintain a significant presence in Afghanistan for many years after 2014. However, a sharp increase in so-called “green-on-blue” attacks on Americans by Afghan soldiers has led many to wonder whether there is any reason to keep American forces in Afghanistan for two more years. The incoming administration will have to decide whether to stick with the 2014 timeline, which both candidates support, especially if the Afghan soldier attacks on NATO forces continue. At the same time, there is no hope for a stable Afghanistan without Pakistani cooperation. As a provider of vital support to Afghan insurgents, as well as supply routes for NATO, Pakistan, a domestically unstable nuclear power, will remain a tricky diplomatic conundrum. The importance of the “Af-Pak” issue is underscored by the ongoing hostility between Pakistan and India, which could make South Asia the next big nuclear flashpoint.
Israel & Palestine
The next president will be far from the first to confront an impasse between Israel and Palestine, but that does not mean that he shouldn’t try to broker an agreement. President Obama’s attempts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict were hampered by Palestine’s 2011 bid for statehood and Israel’s continued construction of settlements in the West Bank. Now, however, with the Middle East changing rapidly, there is room to engage new regional players, especially Mohamed Morsi’s Egypt, in a renewed push for a resolution. A determined effort by the next administration for the elusive two-state solution could promote stability in the Middle East, as well as enhance American credibility in the region.
Nuclear Cooperation Agreements
The United States is in the process of negotiating nuclear cooperation agreements with a number of non-proliferating countries, including Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, and South Korea. These so-called “123 agreements” create a legal framework for nations to use nuclear power reactors while adhering to global nonproliferation standards. Unfortunately, the new round of 123 agreements will not be automatically required to include the so-called ‘gold standard’ of nuclear cooperation, which strengthens the nonproliferation regime by banning nuclear fuel reprocessing and permitting enforcement through IAEA inspections. The next administration should reject the weakening of the criteria and instead articulate a clear commitment to the gold standard for future nuclear cooperation agreements.
Missile Defense in the U.S. & Europe
As in the past, missile defense will be a key determinant of the tone of US-Russia relations over the next few years. Equally important, however, is the fact that our current missile defense systems are fraught with technological shortcomings, despite the billions of dollars that they have absorbed. These systems are “Potemkin villages” –they may look impressive on the surface, but are actually highly ineffective, and engineered to defend against unlikely threats. The next administration should make plans for missile defense systems that are technologically sound and have a genuine strategic justification.
Global War on Terror
The “Global War on Terror” was born during the George W. Bush years, and the Obama administration shifted the focus of America’s fight against al-Qaeda away from land engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, and toward targeted assassinations by drone strikes and special operations in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, and other areas of al-Qaeda strength. The next president will inherit this war along with the questions it raises, such as how deeply we must penetrate al-Qaeda before declaring victory. Moreover, the new style of assassinations raises troubling issues of accountability, oversight, and civilian casualties, which must be weighed against the advantages of a method that poses far less harm to American military personnel.
Post-Arab Spring Middle East
The Arab Spring promised to bring democracy to the Middle East, but a number of disappointing developments followed, calling into question prospects for democracy as well as President Obama’s wary support of the democratic movements. Most recently, anti-American violence in Egypt and Libya demonstrated just how fragile the new governments in those countries are. To preserve the gains made thus far and prevent a slide back into autocracy, Washington will have to continue its efforts on numerous fronts – it must offer economic and political support to countries that have recently moved toward democracy, while cautiously promoting democracy in those nations that have yet to shake off the old regime. Most importantly, the next president must stand against autocratic and oppressive leaders, even when it appears to be against America’s near-term interests.
Iran will loom large on the post-election agenda of the next President, because both candidates have committed to preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. While the government in Tehran has not yet made the decision to build nuclear weapons, its continued enrichment of uranium, its refusal to cooperate fully with International Atomic Energy Agency Inspections, and the failure of a series of negotiations with the West have made the issue an urgent priority. Most experts agree that a military strike on Iran would be ill-advised, and the Obama administration has wisely avoided a rush to war, choosing instead to pursue diplomatic negotiations and tough economic sanctions. The next administration should continue this policy, while also remaining aware of the close connection between sanctions and diplomacy: sanctions are meant to support the negotiating process, which in turn cannot succeed without concessions from both sides. To make a deal with Iran, the U.S. president will need to be willing to compromise, and be open to creative diplomatic solutions.
While the accession of Kim Jong-Un led to much speculation about whether reform is on the way in North Korea, it is clear that the enigmatic nation’s nuclear program will remain a hurdle for American foreign-policymakers. North Korea is nuclear-armed and has a history of noncompliance with international nuclear weapons agreements, and often makes blustery statements about attacking South Korea or the United States. The new U.S. president must maintain the strict sanctions that are in place to try to prevent the North Koreans from developing long-range ballistic missiles with nuclear weapons capable of reaching the United States.
The bloody civil war in Syria has been a conundrum for the United States and other major powers. To some, Obama’s refusal to lead a humanitarian intervention is inexplicable, while on the other hand, there is major public resistance to yet another military engagement in the Middle East. Moreover, the rebels who might compromise the next Syrian government are unlikely to adhere to democratic standards. Yet casualties are mounting and Turkey, Iran, and Lebanon are becoming embroiled in the conflict. With the threat of a broader Middle Eastern war looming, the next administration is likely to have an even more difficult time shaping U.S. policy. Even if direct intervention is off the table, the President will be under pressure to arm the Syrian rebels, a policy that Mitt Romney has supported, but that runs the risk of unintended consequences. Similarly, the Assad regime’s large collection of chemical weapons could also present a danger, should the weapons fall into the hands of terrorist organizations or insurgent groups.
Law of the Sea Treaty
The Law of the Sea Treaty, which lays out rules for maritime activity, has been held up in the Senate for many years. The new administration should seek to overcome this impasse and work for ratification of the treaty, which is supported by the Pentagon, the Navy, former President George W. Bush, as well as former Republican Secretaries of State Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell, and Henry Kissinger. Among other benefits, U.S. ratification may help to resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty
157 countries have ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which bans nuclear weapons test explosions, but before the treaty can come into effect, eight key countries need to ratify it – one of which is the United States. The U.S. Senate rejected ratification in 1999, with Republican opponents arguing that the U.S. cannot maintain its nuclear arsenal without tests, and that it was impossible to monitor other nations’ compliance with the treaty. Thanks to technological advances, these concerns have faded. The next administration should adopt a leadership role on the CTBT, by pushing the Senate to consider the treaty, and encouraging other non-signatory countries to ratify this important global ban on nuclear testing.
The Obama administration has made some indications that it is taking a more aggressive stance toward China, including, most notably, the 2011 “Asia pivot.” However, the pivot should not require pursuing an antagonistic relationship with China. With the Chinese leadership at a political crossroads of its own, it would be prudent to instead foster a good relationship with Xi Jinping, the presumed successor of Hu Jintao. Recently, the need for US-Chian cooperation has been highlighted by China’s territorial disputes with its neighbors over the South China Sea, and the ongoing modernization of the nation’s military. Perhaps more importantly, in the long term, the United States will need Chinese support on global issues such as Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, climate change, and non-proliferation. Rather than engaging in anti-China posturing, the next administration should acknowledge the strategic importance of the Asian giant, and the inevitability of some measure of cooperation.
Non-Proliferation & Nuclear Security
Beginning with the President’s April 2009 speech in Prague, the Obama administration has taken a leadership role in the global efforts toward a nuclear weapons-free world. Much progress has been made since then, but, as indicated by tensions with Iran, North Korea, and even Russia, the road is not without bumps. The next few years will present a number of opportunities to push for nonproliferation, as well as for the securing of vulnerable nuclear materials. In addition to engaging Iran and North Korea on nuclear weapons issues, the next president should also pursue arms reductions with Russia through a follow-on to New START. In addition, the 2015 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference presents an opportunity for the U.S. president to lead by example, encouraging other NPT signatories to move more aggressively on the issue of non-proliferation.
Nuclear Posture Review
President Obama’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review was an admirable step toward reducing the role of nuclear weapons in the United States’ broader national security strategy. Still, much work remains to be done to make United States’ nuclear posture match the needs of the 21st century. The posture review did not recommend the adoption of a “no first use” policy, it did not call for a change to the policy of keeping nuclear missiles on high alert, and it postponed any evaluation of tactical nuclear weapons. Moreover, the Obama administration chose to postpone a decision about reducing the number of deployed nuclear warheads to somewhere between 1,000 and 1,100, which experts agree would provide a more than sufficient defense. These are all manifestations of a lingering Cold War mentality, which the next administration can do much more to dismantle as part of its broader efforts to move toward a world without nuclear weapons.