Security Studies Program Seminar
Foreign Policy Challenges for the Obama Administration
John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
February 11, 2009
If President Obama asks for a briefing about where the U.S. is strong, where it is weak, and what are the biggest challenges facing the country today, what would you say? This talk will be structured to deliver such a briefing.
The Good News
- Contrary to talk of a unipolar moment and the decline of U.S. power, the U.S. is not on an irreversibly downward path
- The first aspect of power: Military
- The U.S. will remain the preeminent military power in the world for as long as anyone can see (at least 50 years)
- The Europeans can’t get their act together to challenge U.S. preeminence even if they wanted to do so
- No other country can project and sustain power the way U.S. can. No other country can send and sustain 150,000 troops in Iraq, 30,000 in Afghanistan, and hundreds of thousands elsewhere
- The next 14 countries combined don’t spend what the U.S. spends on its military, and the quality of forces in training and human capacity is second to none
- The U.S. is stronger relative to its rivals than any country since the Roman empire
- The second aspect of power: Political
- America really is the indispensable nation
- Despite anti-Americanism, when chips are down the U.S. is called. Examples range from the Korean crisis in 1994 to the Mumbai bombings in 2008. The U.S. remains the only state that can make a deal between the Israelis and Palestinians work.
- The third aspect of power: Soft/smart power
- As Joseph Nye and Richard Armitage argue, the strength of America’s universities, business sector, NGOs, and the attractiveness of American values are a major source of U.S. power
- During his first days as ambassador to Greece, Burns thought that the relationship with Greece was about two governments. He discovered that it is actually about two societies, and the best assets he had to rely on were Greek-Americans, economic connections, and other such societal strengths.
The Bad News
- The U.S. is facing the greatest financial crisis since 1929-1933, perhaps worse
- This speaks to a fourth dimension of power (economic), which is shaky in the U.S. now. Without a strong economic foundation our other types of power are severely weakened.
- Burns cannot remember a time when the U.S. faced so many foreign policy crises simultaneously
- We should bring troops home, but in a measured way as Obama has argued
- Burns thinks Afghanistan is going to be Obama’s crucible, like Iraq for Bush
- This is a war involving both Pakistan and Afghanistan that cannot be solved without solving the problem of Pakistani safe havens for those who strike U.S. troops
- The problem is that Afghanistan is very different than Iraq, it is not a centralized country or government. More troops and more money alone are not going to solve the problem.
- New nuclear powers
- Iran and North Korea in particular have the ability to change the balance of interests in the Middle East and East Asia if the U.S. cannot contain this problem
- Global climate change
- We do not yet have a coherent strategy for upcoming talks in Copenhagen on climate change. What sacrifices can Obama ask the business community to make in light of a depression, especially given the fact that India and China will refuse to reduce carbon emissions by saying they are poor developing countries?
- Global poverty
- What if growth in China and India isn’t 8% a year, how will the U.S. and the world deal with billions of people in poverty?
- Rising powers
- The U.S. is really strong in an absolute sense, but it is relatively losing ground to China, which is becoming more powerful
- With its growing footprint in Africa and South America, for the first time in history China is becoming a world power
- The bipolar order or the Cold War is over, and even though U.S. decline is not irreversible, we do not live in a unipolar world where the U.S. can do whatever it wants without assistance
- Will the U.S. continue to lead, and will Congress and the American people want to lead?
- Burns’ understanding of U.S. history is that America has never decided if we are in the world or separate from the world. There has always been tension between isolation and engagement.
- Examples: Jefferson vs. Hamilton, President Teddy Roosevelt vs. President Elliot of Harvard, Charles Lindbergh vs. FDR, Jesse Helms vs. Madeleine Albright
- Burns thought that after 9/11 the debate was over and the U.S. must remain engaged, but he still hears voices pushing for withdrawal and disengagement from the world
- Obama’s biggest challenge may be a push for protectionism and the difficulties of having to send billions of dollars abroad when people are poor at home
The Way Forward
- Almost all of these major challenges are transnational and require transnational solutions
- It all gets back to the economy, but not the usual cast of characters of Britain, France, Japan and the rest of the G-7
- Burns believes that the G-20 is the correct institution to work through. They can reconstruct the regulatory system that failed us in past few years.
- It’s all about the Middle East and South Asia
- Foreign and defense policy has to be global and present everywhere, but Obama has to make priorities, and these are the two most important regions today.
- Fires used to be burning in Europe, but now they’re burning in the Middle East and South Asia, and that is where U.S. attention must turn.
- South Asia is vital to the U.S. for first time in history: Pakistan is the most dangerous country in the world, and India has huge potential as a long-term partner
- Obama appointed George Mitchell to the Middle East and Richard Holbrooke to South Asia on his second day in office, which demonstrated his knowledge of the importance of these regions
- We must think about how we use American power in the world
- We live in a completely different international landscape, this is no longer the Cold War or unipolar moment
- Multilateralism and institution-building (UN or otherwise) is necessary because the U.S. cannot go it alone
- OAS, EU, AU, ASEAN are all important, will do things the U.S. will not do, like peacekeeping in Africa
- This U.S. failed to build an effective international structure in 1919, succeeded from 1945-1949, now it needs to be modernized and reformed for the 21st century
- Example: The UN Security Council is the most legitimate, credible international body around the world, but its permanent members are the victors from 1945
- How can you have UN Security Council without Japan, whose contributions to the UN dwarf everyone but the U.S., without India, the most populous country in the world in 10 years, or without a single African or Latin American country?
- The U.S. should open up institutions to these states, give them responsibility to do peace-keeping and economic development
- Leadership internationally has to be about hope, not fear
- Americans have done best when in times of challenge they inspire the rest of the world and be inclusive with a vision towards peace
- Woodrow Wilson did it for a time then failed, FDR and Truman did it, Reagan did it, and JFK did it in a speech to American University in 1963 when he said we had to make peace with USSR or destroy ourselves
- The world is not as much anti-American as concerned about how America is acting in the world. Changing how we interact with the world will ensure our security, improve America’s image, and ensure global stability and prosperity.
Discussion and Q&A
- Burns is worried about protectionism in the Democratic Party (especially hostility to NAFTA) and the conservative Right’s with desire to withdraw from the world
- Burns was the Iran negotiator from 2005-2008 but never met with a single Iranian. There were conditions that they had to capitulate to before we would talk to them.
- Burns thinks we should talk to Iran, but also thinks that negotiations will fail because Iranians will not be able to agree on their own delegation, what the deal should look like, and what is the meaning of Iranian revolution in a larger sense.
- However, after negotiations fail, Obama should be able to get more draconian sanctions from Russia, Germany and others on Iran
- The sanctions may not be able to be put together and/or the Iranians may be able to endure them, so the question will then be war vs. containment.
- How do we get the policy we get?
- Burns thinks although there is conflict and debate within government, the president decides policy in many administrations. If the president is not focused, others can have more power.
- Burns does not think that reorganization of NSC or other institutions is that consequential. The most important issue is having a hands-on president and cabinet ministers that work well together.
- Burns thinks the U.S. has great people in the State Department and no problem recruiting good people despite low salaries.
- The problem is that diplomacy has been given a back seat since 9/11, underfunded and under-prioritized
- U.S. does not have core of competent individuals and institutions to take over and run a territory after fighting stops; this should not be the military’s job
- The U.S. needs to put more money and effort into public diplomacy
- But, the U.S. needs to contribute to the global good on key issues or the message will not matter
- The U.S. has 30% of its ambassadors as political appointees. Some are great, but every other country in the world does 100% career service people. Burns thinks the U.S. should have more faith in its career service diplomats.
- Burns thinks that the UN Security Council will be muddled no matter what, but being representative with more permanent members gives it more legitimacy, so India and South American will not give up on the UN.
Rapporteur: Peter Krause
back to Wednesday Seminar Series, Spring 2009