Foreign Policy Blogs

Obama’s Second-Term Agenda

Obama's Second-Term Agenda

Photo Credit: John Shinkle

In terms of establishing the conditions for a world without weapons of mass destruction (the main theme of this blog), we might as well say frankly that Obama’s first term left a good deal to be desired. Despite the clear commitment to the elimination of nuclear weapons the Obama made both as candidate in 2008 and incoming president in 2009, the situations in near-nuclear Iran and North Korea continued to fester and deteriorate, while newly nuclear Pakistan and India built up their forces like never before; as for the five long-time members of the hallowed nuclear club, it was basically nothing but more status quo politics.

Admittedly, nuclear arms control and disarmament are always destined to play second fiddle to much more urgent diplomatic concerns, and the next four years will be no exception. So, before turning to the  technical agenda in arms control, let’s pause for the real nitty gritty. Looking ahead to the issues of greatest concern, what Obama generally needs to do in the second term is put his gigawatt personality to work on the global stage — but do so highly selectively, so as to not waste that immensely valuable resource.

First on the grand diplomatic agenda is Europe, whose faltering economy threatens to bring down ours as well. Obama, not much of a Europhile, might have spent a lot more time in the last years hob-nobbing with Chancellor Angela Merkel, one of his favorite world leaders, reportedly. But even if he spends much more time with her in the next years, there will not be time enough. So he could do no better than persuade Bill Clinton to take over from Hillary as Secretary of State. Nobody is better qualified than the Great Explainer to explain to Merkel why the Germans need to do much more to get Europe moving and working, and no American is more admired in Europe.

Second on the agenda is the Islamic world, where there clearly is no One Big Answer or single bullet. Obama could be spending a lot more quiet time with the leader of Turkey, another of the world leaders with whom he reportedly gets on well, and still quieter time with Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi, the other big player in the region.

China’s new military leaders are expected to be more military-minded, conservative (if not outright reactionary), and cold. There won’t be much point trying to snuggle up to them. But at least the president and his surrogates can cultivate relationships in Japan and South Korea to avoid unnecessary provocation while standing firm on basic issues.

An ongoing redefinition of the relationship with Pakistan also will be high on the diplomatic agenda as the war in Afghanistan is wound down and Al Qaeda remains a concern. Here too top-level personal connections will count for little. Because the United States is so widely unpopular among Pakistanis, a deliberate stand-offishness and formality will remain key to any success.

Fifth and finally, resumption of serious climate negotiation can and should be the main focus of personal diplomacy with leaders of the emerging powers in the global South: Brazil, Mexico and South Africa. If the impasse between the United States and China is to be broken, they will have to play an active role.

As for the arms control agenda in the next term, I can’t do a whole lot better than refer readers to the five-point program from Daryl G. Kymbal, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington. But for what it’s worth, here’s my slightly different version:

  • Bring India and Pakistan into the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as nuclear-weapons states, so that they will be explicitly subject to the obligations of those states, the most important of which is not to help any non-nuclear state acquire atomic weaponry
  • Do everything possible to promote negotiation of a Middle East Nuclear Free Zone, recognizing that prospects for success are nil as long as the nuclear issue dividing Israel and Iran remains unresolved; search for space in the context of the upcoming free-zone talks in which understandings could be developed to defuse and ultimately resolve the Iranian nuclear issue
  • Seek, in talks with Japan, South Korea and China, some new basis for arriving at the denuclearization of North Korea
  • Negotiate with NATO the removal of all U.S. non-strategic (or tactical) nuclear weapons from Europe and reconsider plans for missile defense deployments, without signaling any complacency regarding the future course of relations with Russia
  • Last, and not least, look for deep cuts in U.S. military spending, in the context of long-term deficit reduction planning




William Sweet

Bill Sweet has been writing about nuclear arms control and peace politics since interning at the IAEA in Vienna during summer 1974, right after India's test of a "peaceful nuclear device." As an editor and writer for Congressional Quarterly, Physics Today and IEEE Spectrum magazine he wrote about the freeze and European peace movements, space weaponry and Star Wars, Iraq, North Korea and Iran. His work has appeared in magazines like the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and The New Republic, as well as in The New York Times, the LA Times, Newsday and the Baltimore Sun. The author of two books--The Nuclear Age: Energy, Proliferation and the Arms Race, and Kicking the Carbon Habit: The Case for Renewable and Nuclear Energy--he recently published "Situating Putin," a group of essays about contemporary Russia, as an e-book. He teaches European history as an adjunct at CUNY's Borough of Manhattan Community College.