The Election Results for Foreign Policy and National Security

There is little doubt that victory for President Barack Obama was also a victory for America’s responsible engagement in the world. 

There is now little doubt that crazy, counterproductive, and needlessly aggressive military orientated policies pushed by Romney and his neo-con advisors will now not be the hallmark of the next four years. The question then is what should be the goals and policies of a second term Obama and how should they differ from those of the past? What can be accomplished now?

The answer to this question, to be pragmatic and realistic, requires the acknowledgment that Obama will have some real restraints. These include blocked legislative efforts by the still crazy right-wing House majority Republican and (to some extent) from a Senate where the Democrats have only a slim majority, where they have not near the 60 votes to over-ride a filibuster unless the Democrats change the rules in the opening days of the new Congress next year. 

That makes it difficult, in some cases impossible, for him to get treaties ratified and domestically judges, let alone new cabinet members, confirmed. That itself is a tragedy for moving this country forward towards major accomplishments both domestic and international.

With that limitation in mind, what then can he accomplish and how?


His first effort should be to work again to move beyond New START reductions which were key –if modest accomplishment, but one that most thought would never happen with Putin still the “head man” and one most Republicans opposed. Now the issue is to get a cranky and myopic Putin to see the interest of Russia (and perhaps himself) in further reductions and better assurances by both sides of their security as well as reduction of catastrophic errors or clashes.

Clearly Obama is better positioned for this than would have been Romney with his unwise bashing of Russia. One can hope that perhaps after the next Congressional election in 2014 there might be reductions in Republicans in the House and some gains by the Democrats in the Senate.

The Comprehensive Test Band Treaty (CTBT) could maybe only see the light of day if that could happen. However, Obama can act to move executive agreements, short of a treaty, to advance important strategic goals. These include mutually agreed reductions of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, new “confidence building” measures, improved verification efforts, other weapons reductions, and military-to-military protocols that would reduce the risk of unintended skirmishes and address the European Missile Defense issue. Obama now can be even bolder than he was in his first term.


Key decisions will have to be made to restructure our military to reflect current realities and threats rather than the Cold War approach that was dangerously offered by Romney and his cohort neocons which would have “ballooned” the military budget at the expense of rebuilding American industrial, technological, and educational base – all key components of true strategic national security. Obama’s early task will likely, in part, be through addressing the coming requirements of the legislative and financial “cliff” to undertake both significant shifting and in some cases reductions in unneeded programs while enhancing others relevant to the existing strategic landscape. Republicans will be pushing in a different direction.

This will result in a real clash between legislators wedded to the military-industrial interests and those seeking a more properly scaled and mobile military able to react to crises and with enhanced flexibility. Many experts believe with the draw down in Afghanistan, that a cut of up to $1 trillion over 10 years is not an unrealistic goal if done with a fine scalpel rather than a sequester sledge hammer. Already some $525 billion has been agreed by the military via shrinking the size and the growth rate of the DOD over five years. Under that added reduction program, we would still have a military capacity far greater than the next 10 nations – which include our closest allies. We certainly do not need as many as projected F-35s and other such cold war systems or unnecessary nuclear weapons “modernization” programs as are on the books today.  


The time has come again to resurrect the global “stimulus” coordinated efforts that Obama and the UK’s George Brown tried at the start of the economic crisis which failed as conservative run states decided on the now clearly ruinous policies of forced austerity. That approach has brought disaster to those countries that practiced it or were forced to accept it.  Wiser heads might now see the wisdom of a U-Turn before we all fall into a global depression. Here, Obama should pick a new Treasury Secretary with a little more “guts” and fundamental economic judgment to deal with growth and unemployment and less prejudice towards rich bankers than the present incumbent. A stimulus program based on rebuilding the storm torn East Coast would help also if it would especially address the need for infrastructure and rebuilding “smart” against further climate change induced “super storms” of the future.


One of the greatest challenges Obama needs to face is the vital need in the next four years for Americans not only to work for national polices that will advance the requirement to reduce greenhouse gasses, but also to find a way to revive the effort to build a global consensus for broad international agreements on an ambitious action plan to turn back a looming global catastrophe.

Unfortunately, this is unlikely to be done via a single major treaty, since the Republicans will act to defeat any such effort.  The need is more a creative approach which depends more on informal and executive level agreements to achieve a cooperative approach which includes both the advanced developed countries and the developing world.

I would suggest it be part of a global “pact” for growth with the aim of “clean growth” which Obama has led here in the US even without much Congressional support.

We need to press ahead with the Law of the Sea Treaty ratification which the US military supports. While a hard sell with the right on the Hill; with industry backing it, it is worth again making an effort.


The “pivot” to Asia needs broadening and deepening and is crucial to long term peace in this key region.

Obama can do much to deal with China beyond what has been possible so far. The first need is to engage the new Chinese leadership which will be in power before the end of this year. Here, bold acts and wise words and lots of time with the key decision-makers could pay massive dividends on the direction of relations and the avoidance of conflict. Trade is a key, where “win-win” outcomes are doable, especially if we can achieve a global consensus on growth rather than “austerity.”  Dampening down nationalism and moderating conflicts over territorial disputes would do much to create a better climate for all sides to “reason together” and concentrate on issues that would move their economies forward together. 

A bold pan for economic growth in the Pacific region with a focus on clean energy would kill two birds at the same time. China’s two key cities Shanghai and Canton are among the most vulnerable urban areas in the world to the rise of oceans and storms. There is room for cooperation if each side’s right wing nationalists do not win the politics of their nation.


In the Middle East, the time has finally come to try to cut the Gordian knot that has been a source of regional and indeed global instability for decades. It is a large lift but turning our back on this festering looming calamity would be worse. The only fair solution is known by all – and rejected by both sides now. But the time has come for a “full court” press by America, the EU, and Middle East states. A solution to this conflict and the institution of a program of regional joint economic growth and prosperity would go a long way towards making this globe a bit better and safe for many of its people.

The method most likely to work is to put on the table a “deal” that “cannot be refused” as it is so overwhelming good to all, even if parts of it are not desired by one party or the other, that it would create the political will to seal an agreement. This would require, simply put, security guarantees by all concerned powers, the US especially, but also the EU, NATO, Arab league, the UN and others. The second actor is an economic Marshall Plan for the region that would be structured to enhance economic and trade cooperation between all parties and address unemployment especially of youth. It could be seen as part of a global stimulus effort to move the world towards sustainable growth rather than stagnation and conflict.

That also is a fruitful approach to the uncertainties and problems of the Arab Spring. Unemployment and economic stress are a real part of the rise of conflict and terrorism especially proving a fruitful ground for terrorist recruiting of resentful youth. With a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict some of the fuel for the fire in the Middle East is likely to dampen.      


One of the great challenges of the 21st century is to find some solution to this dangerous landscape and move to establish some kind of settlement which will set this area on a peaceful path. Here again, a “grand bargain” which enables all participants to see gains in their goals and security in the region and in their economy might help at last move the players toward a “win-win” approach rather than a “zero sum game.” Some kind of “settlement” of the Kashmiri conflict is a key element as well as agreement to “cool down” the nuclear arms race. Lowering military activities on the border would add confidence to all and help move toward cooperation on a host of issues. Here, America lead by Obama might leave an enduring legacy of peace. He has little to risk at this stage of his leadership but he will need the help of other powers in the region and especially of the EU and UN.


Perhaps the most important area under this category is the strengthening of international institutions devoted to peace making, peace keeping, and prevention of conflicts.  As Henry Kissinger once said, one has to “institutionalize” for the long-term institutions and capabilities that will endure and help peace prevail. These institutions include the IAEA, UNHCR, the various UN human rights groups, and the UN peacekeeping capabilities and programs…but with more standing capabilities and early intervention mandates. 

These issues will be examined in future posts as we elaborate on these sectors and other areas of America and international opportunity for innovation in the coming months.

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