Foreign Policy Blogs

10 Foreign Policy Issues Facing Obama

U.S. President Barack Obama celebrates on stage as confetti falls after his victory speech during his election rally in Chicago, November 6, 2012. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Despite the fact that it’s only the 9th of November, election day is far behind us.  There’s no option of a lame duck for any officials.  The glaringly obvious and ever-pressing question is, of course, what now?  Or, to put it another way, where?

Some of the “whats” have snuck their way into kitchen table conversations; others are less prominent.  Everyone wants to know about the economy, sequestration is a bipartisan nightmare, and Iran, Israel and Syria have all avoided the limelight. So what’s on the old-but-new POTUS’ platter for 2013? We can think of at least ten (n.b., this is not an exhaustive list):

  1. Budget Cuts: First off, the 2011 Budget Control Act — otherwise known as sequestration — is due to spring into action on Jan. 2 unless a deal can be reached beforehand. Along with the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, you’ve got all the ingredients for the “fiscal cliff” that pundits say will shatter the already delicate U.S. economy.
  2. Syria: Not only is the death toll rising in Syria and will continue to rise, the Syrian civil war is creeping closer and closer to Turkey’s borders as well as threatening to initiate additional regional conflicts.  According to the Guardian, PM David Cameron has already stated he’s going to tell Obama that Syria ought to be their top priority. Following a report from the U.N. political affairs chief of cluster bomb use,  the push to get Russia to do more to end the war has grown stronger. Naturally, Syria ties into…
  3. Renewed Relations with Russia: The so-called Russian reset, acceptance of Russia into the World Trade Organization, and Russian assistance in Afghanistan have all prove fruitful for better bilateral relations between Russia and the U.S. Although Obama’s promise to have “more flexibility” after the election may be true in some ways, both Syria and Iran are adding yet another layer of complexity to the situation.  The U.S. seeks more cooperation from Russia on both Syria and Iran; meanwhile, Russia expects the Obama administration (take two!) to permit some of the “flexibility” Obama mentioned in his “oh-no-my-mic-is-on” gaffe in March, particularly around the configuration of NATO missile defense.
  4. Iran, Israel and Nuclear Weapons: Just to add to the complexity of the Iran-Israel situation, Netanyahu made the mistake of aligning himself with the wrong campaign: Romney’s. Netanyahu has made it clear he’d be willing to strike without American approval or involvement as well.  Meanwhile, a report in August from the IAEA claimed Iran could have enough enriched uranium to build a bomb by next summer.
  5. Eurozone Crisis: By all accounts, the Eurozone crisis will continue well into Obama’s second term. It’s no longer just an economic issue; it’s an issue of the health of the West. There is, granted, only so much the U.S. can do during a time of economic weakness, but allowing Europe to crumble any further will affect not only U.S.-European relations, but also the strength and influence of organizations such as NATO.
  6. Africa: Back in 2008, it seemed like the U.S. was on the road to a new and revamped Africa policy. Yet Africa is not only growing economically, but its rising youth population and connections to China make the continent a key asset in U.S. foreign policy. Like India and the Eurozone crisis, there wasn’t much mention of Africa during the foreign policy debate. Just a lot of…
  7. The Middle East: Despite low popularity ratings in the Middle East, Obama was viewed as a preferential choice to Mitt Romney.  One of Saudi Arabia’s most influential clerics, Salman al-Oudah, tweeted, “Obama isn’t good. But he is the lesser evil.” Even in the face of this negativity, there’s room for improved relations. We may have lost some opportunities during the Arab Spring, but there is, as one writer notes, a “hunger” for U.S. leadership in the region, which is demonstrated by the appeals to the U.S. by Egyptians, Libyans, Bahrainis and Syrians. One of the key countries here? Pakistan.
  8. Latin America: Much to the region’s chagrin, there was little mention of Latin America during the foreign policy debate.  Furthermore, the “42 allies” listed by the Romney campaign didn’t include such key states like Mexico, Dominican Republic, Colombia…you get the idea. There are calls to rethink the war on drugs, improve labor mobility through immigration reform, stopping the flow of automatic weapons to Mexico, and push for greater free trade in the region.

    Climate change during the debates.

  9. Climate Change: Climate change made history by not being mentioned in any of the presidential debates for the first time since 1984. To his credit, Obama managed to insert a comment about the dangers of a warming planet in his victory speech, but climate change cannot remain unmentioned or be crammed into the same discussion as how to lower gas prices. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and weather oddities this past year, it’s hard to see how climate change could remain forgotten in the corner.
  10. China: Unlike climate change, no one forgets about China. China is undergoing some changes of its own with the arrival of the 18th Party Congress, which will initiate the power shift from President Hu Jintao to Vice President Xi Jinping. Jinping has, according to the New York Times, expressed an interest in a “new type of relationship between major countries in the 21st century.”  Obama’s second term will bring to fruition the “pivot” his administration pushed for in his first term, and will require defusing some of the Chinese anxiety over what they view as an effort at “containment.”

But before we cruise into that lame duck period, here’s a roundup of some reflections on the issues the president must tackle and how he can deal with them: