Časopis pro politiku a mezinárodní vztahy

Global Politics

Časopis pro politiku a mezinárodní vztahy

New directions or old issues? Challenges for the new U.S. President

Many our previous symposia have addressed crucial contemporary international (geo)political issues. We continue this established tradition with the current Symposium, aimed on finding the most important future challenges for the leader of the most important great power – the new president of the USA. Besides that, we also asked scholars with different theoretical, cultural and/or ideological background to propose a major advice on the challenge(s) they identified.

It is our great pleasure to publish answers of Robert Shapiro, Zlatko Šabič, Derek Beach, Ondřej Ditrych, Arshin Adib-Moghaddam and Valentina Cassar.

  • What is the most important international challenge the new U.S. President will face in his term?
  • What would be your principal advice for the new president in this matter?

Robert Shapiro (Department of Political Science, Columbia University, USA)

The most important challenge is the complex interconnections of problems in the Middle East, and the threat posed by chemical as well as higher powered conventional weapons that could wind up in the hands of groups that threaten both the stability of the region and pose a threat to other countries. This includes the unravelling of Syria and the instability it has and will cause, with the possibility of chemical and other weapons there falling into the hands of groups and individuals engaged in terrorism. This can have spillover effects into other countries such as Iraq and Lebanon with Suni-Shiite conflicts, with possible consequences for the conflicts involving Iran, Israel, and Palestinians.

One of the keys to these problems and stability in the region is Egypt. It is in the U.S.‚s and in the region‘s interest for Egypt to remain stable and ideally democratic. The key issue there may less be the outcome of the conflict over the content of the Constitution, but the stability and confidence needed to hold the next free and fair legislative elections and then the next presidential election so that all sides will feel sufficiently represented in the government. Egypt is central to peace, however unstable between Israel and the Palestinians, and balancing against Iran in general and in Syria. The other key in Syria is Russia which can have some influence there if it's positions can be brought to more closely aligned with those of the NATO countries. An additional key player regarding Israel, Iran, and the Palestinians is Turkey which along with Egypt want to be the lead country in the Middle East Muslim world. The U.S. needs to focus on these countries diplomatically and on providing continued assistance to Egypt if it continues on a democratic path.

Zlatko Šabič (Faculty of Social Science, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia)

There are many explosive situations around the world, each meriting attention in its own right, but it seems that the Middle East and relations with the Arab world will need to be a priority: besides the enduring Israeli-Palestine issue, we now have Syria, Iran, Egypt, unstable Iraq and Libya, not to forget terrorist activities by islamic fundamentalists recruited from the Arab world. Adding to this the uneasy relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia vying for leadership in the Muslim world make the whole challenge a complex one indeed.

Now, my advice to the President would be to seriously reconsider America's lea­dership role in the world, starting indeed with its policy in the Middle East. He should try not to resolve crises in the region, but rather contain them. If the US wants to keep its relative position among the world powers, it should not, yet again, engage itself directly in any of the enduring situations or conflicts there. If it engages, it should do so on an equal basis with other powers, such as China, India or Russia sharing the burden. The recent experience (Iraq, Afghanistan) has clearly demonstrated that it is mostly the US and some of its Western allies that invest the money and human resources with no immediate return on sight, whereas China, India, Russia and Brasil mostly function as ‚free riders‘. That, in turn, helps these countries gaining economic as well as political strength at the expense of the US.

To change its Middle East policy in this way would strengthen the point which seems obvious to many: the Middle East is not just an American or Israeli problem. It is the global problem. To its domestic public (and all the lobbies that want the US active role in the region) the policy of containment should be announced with the message of making a choice between two options: to continue fight enormously expensive wars the US cannot win and risk further economic downturn, or focus on economy and help itself to sustain its status of a dominant power globally.

Derek Beach (Department of Political Science and Government, Aarhus University, Denmark)

While crises might erupt in the Middle East over Iran, or in the EU if the euro collapses, the greatest challenge for Obama will be to ensure that the peaceful rise of China can continue in East Asia. In the past, rising regional powers have provoked violent reactions from regional rivals. If this were to be the case, we would expect to see increasingly violent spats between China and India, Vietnam, Philippines, etc over resources and territory in the next decade. However, the US has been quite successful in embedding China into a more institutionalized and interdependent regional order (for example through WTO membership), ensuring a more moderate Chinese economic and foreign policy than we perhaps otherwise would expect.

Continue and expand efforts to integrate China into the regional and international community, while at the same time signalling that the US will not sit idly by if China decides to adopt a more traditional, muscular rise to regional prominence. It is vital that the latter efforts are not seen as a new form of ‚containment‘, where new bases and military alliances are seen as being aimed at balancing an increase Chinese power.

Ondřej Ditrych (Institute of International Relations, Prague, Czech Republic; visiting scholar at CERI, Sciences Po, Paris, France)

The most important challenge for Barack Obama in his second term is to continue what he started in the first. That is, trimming the sails of the U.S. foreign and security policy, adjusting it to the changing global balance of power and America’s relative decline. His ‘grand strategy’ now entails the vision of a position of the U.S. as primus inter pares in the global order, keeping its influence around the world through offshore balancing and sharing the costs of providing global public goods (such as securing the global commons) with others. This is a generally good course. And should Obama succeed in keeping it, it could secure him, even without any grand political spectacles, his place in history. For the obstacles are many: intransigent rivals who are hardly keen on removing any burdens from the current hegemon; unpredictable allies pursuing their own agendas; or the deeply rooted strategic culture of ‘global leadership’ premised on the idea of America’s excep­tionality and its (liberal) imperial past.

History of empires such as Spain’s (incidentally also one with strong normative mission) shows how difficult it is politically to extricate the hegemon from its responsibilities under such conditions when everything taking place globally is considered a problem, and at the same time means are at immediate disposal to get involved, with the bill to be presented only sometime in the future. And the record of Obama’s first term – the role in the eventual regime change in Libya, growing entanglement in the civil war in Syria, or the escalating use of drones for extrajudicial killings to combat regional terrorist networks – shows only a modest success so far in effecting a more limited engagement with the outside world and waiving any special rights due to the status of a liberal superpower and the global policeman.

If I had the president’s ear, I would encourage him to resist the reckless liberal interventionalism which as a school of foreign policy continues to retain a powerful presence inside the Beltway. I would suggest to him that his administration should live up to its promises once more, as in the wake of the WWII, make America the ‘architect’ of the global normative order, show foresight and lead efforts to develop new international regimes, e.g. in areas such as drone or cyber warfare, even when this can bring about initial costs in terms of limiting the administration’s sco­pe of action.

I would point out to him that in crafting new alliances it is also important to remember old friends, and advise him to support an effective NATO 3.0, a strong and prosperous (and therefore probably more federalized) EU, emergence of a Transatlantic free trade area; and always keep in mind that when managing relationships with ‘revolutionary’ great powers such as Russia (in areas such as arms control and limitation) there is only a thin line between moderateness and appeasement.

Arshin Adib-Moghaddam (School of Oriental and African Studies, London, UK)

(Recently published A Metahistory of the Clash of Civilisations)

It is Iran and the wider west Asian/North African region which has fundamentally changed after the Arab Spring. The government of Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel and the lobbying arms of the Israeli state in Washington DC, especially AIPAC, will continue to exert pressure on the Obama administration to escalate the conflict with Iran and to disregard the mounting international condemnation of Israel's occupation policy.

Firstly, constrain US military engagements abroad and use the funds to bolster the national economy. Secondly, engage Iran and find a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue and fully support the nascent democracies in Egypt and Tunisia. Thirdly, revive the peace process between Israel andPalestine with a realistic assessment of the situation on the ground and Israel's increasing isolation in the region and beyond.

Valentina Cassar (Faculty of Arts, University of Malta)

President Obama’s first administration oversaw a largely successful foreign policy – primarily under the stewardship of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  During his second term, a number of foreign policy expectations and concerns that were not directly or fully addressed during his first term will continue to dominate his agenda. These are numerous, including moving towards a resolution in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, ensuring a smooth transition towards democracy in the Middle East and North Africa following the Arab Spring, ensuring an effective response in the face of the atrocities taking place in Syria, containing and maintaining stability with regard to Iran’s pursuit of nuclear capabilities, and addressing environmental concerns such as climate change.  Relations with other great powers, such as China, Russia and the EU also require constant maintenance. Thus, the greatest challenge for the Obama administration during its second term will be projecting a responsible leadership role in which it effectively steers the international community into taking difficult yet necessary decisions, before the consequences of decisions that remain untaken become regretful.

I would suggest that the President attempt to reconcile the need to safeguard national interest whilst acting in the interest of the international community by recognizing the fact that these two goals are not mutually exclusive. The United States must lead the international community multilaterally, seeking compromise amongst its partners so as to work towards the common good.  Moreover, whilst democracy promotion is a central pillar of the US foreign policy, it must ensure that such objectives are not projected selectively.

Aleš Karmazin has studied International Relations at Aberystwyth University and currently is one of the editors of Global Politics magazine.

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Aleš Karmazin a Jaromír Vojtaj
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4. 1. 2013