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The Top Five Foreign Policy Challenges

by Ambassador Michael Cotter

Commenting on foreign policy in the midst of a presidential election campaign is a challenge in itself, as things have a way of changing rapidly. One example is how the tragic murders in Benghazi of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and his colleagues have become a campaign issue.

Our embassies around the world use presidential elections as an opportunity to highlight our democratic system. Through the International Visitor Program we bring people to the U.S. to observe the democratic process at work in an election campaign. We place stories about the electoral process in foreign media. Many embassies also host events on election night for local citizens and government officials. Depending on the time difference, there may be an electoral map, updated as returns come in, or a link to network coverage. Often there is also a straw vote, allowing guests to vote for a candidate by secret ballot. In my experience, if the election involves an incumbent running for re-election, the incumbent almost always wins the straw vote.

There are a number of reasons for this. One is that the incumbent is better known overseas and the results of these straw polls often reflect voters’ familiarity with the candidates rather than a deep understanding of policy issues. But another reason is that foreign governments generally prefer continuity in American foreign policy. The challenger is a relative unknown, and is likely to take policy in unfamiliar directions.

“Ground Truths”

Before getting into specific challenges that the next administration will face, let me suggest six of what I’ll call “ground truths” involving foreign policy in relation to U.S. presidential elections.

Ground truth number one is that the time is long past when politics stopped at our borders and foreign policy reflected a bilateral consensus. Now, when the incumbent is running for re-election, his opponent has no choice but to stake out contrasting positions on foreign policy issues. While that does make it easier to differentiate between the candidates, it raises the profile of foreign policy in ways that have serious ramifications.

A corollary is that the time is also past when other countries could ignore U.S. presidential elections. Leaders of several countries with stakes in critical international issues have stated publicly that they are waiting for the presidential election to see what steps the U.S. would take with regard to issues such as the future of Syria, Iran’s nuclear program, and U.S.-Russia bilateral relations.

Ground truth number two is that in the event the non-incumbent wins the election, meaningful policy changes are unlikely to occur for some time. Inauguration takes place two months after the election, and even in the best organized transition, key officials aren’t named or confirmed for months thereafter. So a fast-moving situation like that in Syria may well have been resolved by the time a new administration can take decisive action, or has even agreed within its ranks what action might be appropriate.

Ground truth number three is that a new administration led by a non-incumbent is likely to face more foreign policy challenges than one led by an incumbent. An incumbent means continuity, but a new president will want to implement new policies and foreign governments will probe to determine his intentions.

Ground truth number four is that campaign promises can often come back to haunt a president. Conventional wisdom holds that most Americans aren’t interested in foreign affairs. While candidates try to remain vague on domestic policy in the belief that they will be held to promises, they are more apt to make specific promises on foreign policy in the expectation that the electorate will ignore or forget them. The best example of this is the perennial campaign promise to move our embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, a promise always made by non-incumbent candidates, but seldom by incumbents, who have learned the obstacles to actually making that move. This explains why the 2012 Democratic platform originally did not contain such a promise, while its 2008 platform did. If Governor Romney is elected he is likely to find it as impossible to make that move as all previous presidents have done.

Ground truth number five is that a foreign policy crisis that was completely unforeseen may well be the first to which a new president has to respond. The best example of this phenomenon is the impact of the 9/11 events on President George W. Bush’s foreign policies. However, this time around several significant foreign policy challenges will have to be faced as soon as the election is decided, and it is unlikely that they will be superseded by a surprise. Unlikely, but not impossible.

Ground truth number six is that any administration’s ability to respond to foreign policy challenges depends heavily on the makeup of the Congress. A congress controlled by the party in opposition will severely limit a president’s freedom of action in anything less than an existential crisis like 9/11.

All of that said, no election obeys all of these ground truths and this one will be no exception. The geopolitical situation at present is so fluid that the next president will face policy decisions dictated more by changing circumstances than by campaign promises.

Five Top Foreign Policy Challenges For the New Administration

So, given those brief comments on the nitty-gritty of foreign policy politics, what are the five major foreign policy challenges the next administration will have to face? I discuss them by the relative urgency with which they might have to be addressed, stressing that this does not necessarily reflect their relative long-term importance.

Challenge #1: Extricating the U.S. from conflicts

For better or for worse we have extricated ourselves from Iraq, but we have yet to do so from Afghanistan, and have not yet reached a decision about whether to engage more directly in Syria.

From the perspective of relative urgency, Syria has to be at the top of the agenda. In fact, our policy options with regard to that civil war may be overtaken by events before the inauguration in January. There seem to be three main options: first, continue the current policy of providing moral and financial support to the rebels while seeking international consensus on a negotiated solution; second, shift to a more active role in support of the rebels by providing military assistance either indirectly through Turkey or directly in the form of enforcing a no-fly zone; or third, engage Russia and, unlikely as it may be, Iran directly to find a solution that protects the interests of Syria’s minorities and ensures that a majority government is not controlled by jihadist groups. Governor Romney’s campaign has not shed much light on which option it would pursue, although it has expressed frustration with the limited support the administration has given to the rebels; and President Obama has been equally vague about what next steps he would take.

The real challenge is that Syria’s civil war runs a great risk of igniting a regional conflict, pitting the countries ruled by Shi’a dominated governments – Iran, Iraq and Lebanon – against Sunni Islam led by countries such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The conflict is already causing internal problems in Turkey where a Shi’a group that constitutes some 30% of the population, the Alevis, is voicing opposition to the government’s policy. Kurds in Turkey, Iraq and Syria are already cooperating, hoping to achieve an independent Kurdistan. Iraq’s Sunni population is assisting Syrian rebels. And tensions have increased in Lebanon, with its careful balance among Shia, Sunni and Christian groups. The next administration will have to tread very cautiously in this minefield.

Resolving the conflict in Afghanistan is not as urgent as dealing with Syria. Or, perhaps better said, the short term direction of our policy in Afghanistan seems not to be at issue in the campaign. Although Governor Romney has criticized the President’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces by the end of 2014, public opinion in the U.S. appears to have taken that date as set in concrete, and Governor Romney has given no indication that he would cancel the withdrawal or even tamper with the timeline. If the end of our involvement in Iraq is any example, our ability to influence developments in Central Asia after most foreign forces depart will be very limited. If you believe the U.S. will have a long-term strategic relationship with Afghanistan after our combat forces depart, look at what is happening in Iraq. Our plan to retain troops there did not take into account Iraqi unwillingness to sign a Status of Forces Agreement that would give us sole jurisdiction over residual American military personnel. As a result, our much-ballyhooed strategic cooperation agreement is a dead letter.

The Karzai government in Afghanistan is no more likely to accept an extended foreign military presence with immunity from local jurisdiction than were the Iraqis. Indeed, President Karzai’s most common complaint is about the kind of actions our forces carry out now, i.e., night raids targeting al Qaeda and Taliban cadres, that would continue to be a key task for our longer-term presence in the country. Beyond the Afghan government’s desires in this regard, Afghanistan’s neighbors – Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan – are also unwilling to tolerate a long-term U.S. military presence in their midst. And Russia and Pakistan have the ability to make our presence untenable by cutting the supply lines we depend on to supply those forces.

Since postponing the withdrawal from Afghanistan does not appear to be on the table, the next administration will have to chart a new course in Central Asia. For several years I have argued that the responsibility for determining Afghanistan’s future lies in the hands of its neighbors, all of whom have much greater national interests in its stability than do we. Our willingness to expend lives and treasure in an effort to determine that course has allowed those countries to shirk that responsibility. That will no longer be the case by the end of 2014.

The next administration will also have to develop a coherent policy for dealing with Pakistan. In a worst case scenario, that country may disintegrate and its nuclear weapons fall into the hands of radical jihadists. An only slightly less catastrophic scenario would be for Central Asia to face a future similar to that which I outlined for Syria –a radical realignment of borders, with several new states emerging from the wreckage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. As with the narrower issue of Afghanistan, primary responsibility for avoiding such scenarios lies with the regional powers. Although both President Obama and Governor Romney may be reluctant to accept the fact, in reality the U.S. is not in a position to accomplish much more than playing a supportive role in encouraging regional powers to agree on an arrangement that ensures stability in the heartland of Eurasia.

Challenge #2: Relations with Russia

Russia is a challenge because it will have a significant say in developments in Syria and Afghanistan as well as Iran. If the next administration is unable to work with the Russians on issues like those because of disagreements over things like Russia’s human rights policies, for example, it will make achieving other important foreign policy goals that much more difficult.

The next administration will have to deal immediately with a serious issue that will affect cooperation with Russia – Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization, or WTO. For anyone not familiar with the issue, here’s a quick primer. Last year Russia finally qualified for entry into the WTO, committing to open its economy and to accept WTO rules on a range of trade-related issues. To gain enhanced access to its market, the U.S. will need to grant Russia permanent most favored nation trade status. But a law originally intended to deny most favored nation status to communist countries that did not allow Jewish citizens to freely emigrate, the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment, is still on the books and requires Congress to vote every year on MFN status for Russia.

Unless Jackson-Vanik is repealed, that annual renewal means U.S. businesses will be denied MFN treatment in Russia and will be at a disadvantage against competitors from other countries. That market share, once lost, would be difficult to regain. Granting permanent trade status to Russia thus becomes important to promoting U.S. trade as a sustainable boost to our economy. However, legislation pending in Congress do just that has become entangled in legislation that would punish Russian officials accused of abusing human rights. That bill, named after Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died in prison in 2009, has bipartisan support in both houses of Congress. In late August Governor Romney issued a statement that he would support normalizing trade with Russia only if the Magnitsky Bill were enacted.

Russian President Putin has warned of unspecified reciprocal measures if the Magnitsky Bill becomes law. Putin’s warning about the Magnitsky Bill and his recent action in ending U.S. Agency for International Development programs in Russia will present the next administration with an early test of its intentions with regard to bilateral relations.

So a Romney administration would face a problem even if the governor had not muddied the water further by calling Russia our “number 1 geopolitical foe.” While that statement would not be relevant if President Obama is re-elected, the Russians will certainly use the WTO issue to gauge the direction of our bilateral relationship regardless of who is elected.

Challenge #3: Long-Term Relations with the Islamic world

This challenge has a multitude of aspects, of which Syria, Afghanistan and Central Asia are several with near term implications. But I want to step back a bit and put the issue of our relations with the Islamic world into a broader context which will occupy the attention of the next several administrations.

World War I marked the beginning of the end of European domination of the world. And the end of the Cold War marked its disappearance. Since then the entire world seems to be undergoing rapid, often violent, change. An interesting opinion piece by an Indian author, Pankaj Mishra, appeared in the New York Times on September 24. To quote one of Mishra’s comments: “…the cold war, and America’s obsession with the chimera of monolithic Communism…obscured the unstoppable momentum of decolonization, which was fueled by an intense desire among humiliated peoples for equality and dignity in a world controlled by a small minority of white men.”

It would be too easy to dismiss his as only one voice, but the fact is that since 1991 conflict over ethnic and border issues has convulsed the planet. The world controlled by “a small minority of white men” is history. Today, violence breaks out within countries over local ethnic, cultural, class and religious differences. And territorial conflicts occur between states constrained by borders established centuries ago by Europeans with no regard to ethnic or religious relationships. The civil war in Yugoslavia; conflicts in Sudan, Somalia, the Congo, Indonesia, and elsewhere; and even the current tensions over control of the East and South China Seas, are all manifestations of the basic geopolitical reorientation underway in the world.

This process will continue until a new equilibrium is reached, which I believe will take a century or more. The United States cannot dictate the evolution or conclusion of that process, but we can and must play an essential role in guiding it in a positive direction.

At its core, the unrest in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Muslim World is part of this process, initiated there in part by the U.S. decision to reinvent Iraq. It is a bit ironic that the conviction of President George W. Bush’s advisors that removing Saddam Hussein would open the door to democracy throughout the Middle East is actually occurring in a way they never envisioned. The violent reaction to a movie trailer’s unflattering depiction of the Prophet Muhammad was just the catalyst for unleashing forces expressing the same complaints underlying violence elsewhere in the world. The U.S. has been the initial focal point of the demonstrations largely because we are seen as the heir of centuries of Western domination. Americans see our actions around the world as those of a benign benefactor bringing aid, stability and progress. In many countries some see those actions as support for despotic regimes; as part of a mission to impose our values; and, given our pursuit of two wars over a decade, as an effort to continue Western political domination.

So the next administration will have to work to establish new relationships with the Muslim states based on mutual respect. This won’t be easy. Take for example Egypt, a country long considered the linchpin of the Middle East. Perhaps some of you read the interview with Egyptian President Morsi that appeared in the September 23 New York Times. Here are a couple of excerpts:

“If you want to judge the performance of the Egyptian people by the standards of German or Chinese or American culture, then there is no room for judgment. When the Egyptians decide something, probably it is not appropriate for the U.S. When the Americans decide something, this, of course, is not appropriate for Egypt”

When asked if he considered the United States an ally, Mr. Morsi answered in English, “ that depends on your definition of ally” adding that he envisions the two nations as “real friends” .

According to the article, Mr. Morsi said that if Washington is asking Egypt to honor its treaty with Israel, Washington should live up to its own Camp David commitment to Palestinian self-rule.

Trying to dictate to President Morsi, or withholding economic assistance for Egypt, is unlikely to produce a positive result. Similarly, we have learned over the past decade that we can no longer depend on Turkey automatically to fall in line with our wishes on the basis of our historic relationship in NATO. The next administration faces hard decisions in establishing productive relations with the evolving Middle East.

Challenge #4: Iran and Israel

Although Iran will play an important role in developments in the Islamic world, there is a separate issue with which the next administration will have to wrestle – Iran’s nuclear ambitions. In the campaign that issue has become inextricably linked to the question of the firmness of our support for Israel. Absent the Israel factor, the next administration would probably continue the current policy of ratcheting up sanctions as a way of pressuring Iran to abandon its effort to produce highly enriched uranium. But now Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has interjected himself into the American presidential campaign by demanding a “red line” that would trigger a military attack on Iran. And with Governor Romney adopting a similar position, this issue is presented in stark terms.

If Governor Romney is elected, would his administration actually agree to a military strike on Iran’s nuclear installations, regardless of the serious consequences for the safety of American civilians and military in the region, not to mention the world economy? And if President Obama is re-elected, what would happen to cooperation with an Israeli government led by Netanyahu? The likely answer is that Governor Romney would probably back down from his support for military action, and that President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu would manage to paper over their differences. But nothing is certain in this volatile environment.

It is, of course, still possible that a solution to Iran’s nuclear ambitions can be found. If, as some analysts argue, Iran’s real goal is to obtain an ironclad U.S. commitment to take regime change off the table, then in exchange for such a commitment it might agree to even greater extension of international supervision of a program that it insists exists only for non-military purposes. Given the course of this confrontation so far, taking the steps necessary to achieve such a solution might be virtually impossible for any administration, but conceivably less so for a “lame duck” president ending his second term in office.

There is another aspect to this issue that will have to be dealt with eventually, very likely during the next administration. Both candidates have painted themselves into corners by declaring that Iran must not be allowed to have nuclear weapons. Yet there is a possibility that sanctions will fail, but that neither the U.S. nor Israel would in the end initiate a conflict with Iran (or, if we did attack its nuclear facilities we would not succeed in destroying all of them), and that Iran would achieve nuclear weapon capability. To me this is a more likely possibility than that the American people would be willing to engage in another ground war. So it is imperative that the next administration at least begin to consider plans for living with a nuclear Iran. Several weeks ago Bill Keller, formerly executive editor of the New York Times and now an editorial writer there, wrote an opinion piece that suggested such a possibility and outlined ways in which a nuclear Iran could be contained.

Issue #5: China

Unfortunately, the way the China problem has been framed in the election campaign avoids the real issue. China does present a foreign policy challenge for the U.S., but it is a challenge for the long term. Criticizing China for its trade and currency policies has become a popular pastime in American politics, but the bilateral economic relationship is so complex that whoever is elected president is unlikely to make radical changes to current policy. Occasional China bashing will continue in public, and the two countries are likely to take trade disputes to the World Trade Organization, but no administration can afford to alienate a country that is a major export market and holds a large portion of our national debt. Our economic and commercial relationships may change due to developments in the global economy, but not from policy changes on either side. Indeed, the major challenge for presidents over the past decade and more has been to deflect efforts in Congress to impose restrictions on trade with China in ways that would damage these relationships.

The real challenge, which has not been addressed during the presidential campaign, is whether the two countries can establish a cooperative political and defense relationship rather than one that turns confrontational and leads to a new arms race. Having achieved superpower status in the economic sphere, China is clearly intent on playing a more active role politically as well. There are no indications to this point that the Chinese leadership has any intention of challenging U.S. power globally, but it does appear intent on becoming the dominant power in East Asia and the Western Pacific. As a result, China’s relationships with the countries on its periphery, from India and Russia on land to the other Western Pacific countries, are in flux. The Chinese are using their economic power to influence those neighbors; are turning the People’s Liberation Army into a modern, technologically sophisticated military force; and are developing, for the first time in centuries, a blue water navy. Yet they are a long way from presenting a direct challenge to U.S. naval dominance in the Western Pacific, much less further afield.

Even a Chinese challenge limited to our dominant position in the Western Pacific presents a real problem. The countries on China’s periphery, ranging from economic powers like Japan and Korea to places like Vietnam, Indonesia, Taiwan and the Philippines, do not want to fall under Chinese control and look to the U.S. as a counterweight. We in turn have treaty commitments with several of these countries that require us to defend their independence and, presumably, their territorial integrity.

A year ago the Obama Administration announced a strategic shift of defense and foreign policy focus to the Asia-Pacific region, a move taken by China and its neighbors as a sign that we are reaffirming our intention to remain the force to be reckoned with. The administration has gone to great pains to insist that it does not intend to challenge China’s right to be a major regional power, but it has not clearly articulated precisely what the strategic shift will entail beyond the transfer of a few thousand Marines to northern Australia. At the same time, the administration announced plans to reduce defense spending, also in ways yet to be specified. The next administration will obviously have to begin fleshing out what this shift means in reality and how it will be implemented and financed.

As an aside, the timing of the decision to shift our defense focus to the Pacific was certainly related to the drawdown of U.S. military activities in Afghanistan, and perhaps in the Middle East as well. By the time we were bogged down in Iraq in the middle of the last decade, it was already clear that the U.S. was unable to maintain a national security strategy of conducting major military operations in two regions of the world at once. The Obama administration is implicitly suggesting that, at a time of fiscal constraint and with the American military exhausted after ten years of constant combat operations, we need to focus our strategy where we see the greatest future challenge to stability. Governor Romney has not taken issue with that analysis.End.

This article is based on remarks at the Charleston Foreign Affairs Forum
Charleston, SC; October 3, 2012


Michael W. Cotter
Michael W. Cotter

Ambassador (ret.) Michael W. Cotter is Publisher, former President and member of the board of directors of American Diplomacy Publishers. In addition to his tours in the Republic of South Vietnam, Ambassador Cotter was posted to Bolivia, Ecuador, Zaire, Turkey, Chile, and Turkmenistan, where he served as ambassador. Living in the Chapel Hill, NC area, he frequently writes and lectures on international topics.

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