New Government, Old Problems

John Barham, International Editor

The next U.S. administration will benefit from a positive reception from world leaders in January, which will enable it to continue the struggle against global terrorism, said speakers at a high-level security conference in Washington, D.C.

The incoming president will benefit from greater goodwill than is usually accorded new governments, because foreign leaders have become so angered by the Bush administration’s unilateral policies.

America reacted to 9-11 by “presenting an angry face to the world, not projecting American values of optimism, hope, freedom” said Richard Armitage, a former deputy secretary of State under President George W. Bush. That reaction has cost the U.S. moral leadership, respect, and support around the world.

But Joseph Nye, a former top adviser to President Bill Clinton, warned that U.S. attitudes and policies risk veering off in an opposite direction if unilateralism were to give way to excessive caution. He said the U.S. needs to emphasize “contextual intelligence.” America has unquestioned military leadership, he agreed, but it is only first among equals in the economic sphere, and one among many in solving the “chaotically distributed” arena of issues that range from climate change to terrorism.

Many speakers stressed that closer international partnerships with traditional allies in Europe and with emerging new powers in Asia will help America manage these challenges. “We need to broaden our strategic aperture,” said Michele Flournoy, president of Center for a New American Security, a bi-partisan think tank that hosted the event. The incoming administration needs to rebuild “partnerships which are indispensable to advance America’s interests,” she said. The next president will also have to reconstruct the overstretched and under-equipped military.

Election campaigns may  highlight the differences between conservatives and liberals, but William Kristol, the conservative commentator and editor of the Weekly Standard, said there are few deep divergences between them on American values, interests, and broad policies. “Not much will change with the new government. After a honeymoon period is over, everyone will realize that the world will still be the same difficult, dangerous place that it has always been,” he said. “The next government will wind up following the Bush strategy, only more effectively.”

There will be limits to what the U.S. can achieve, either by acting alone or with its allies, some speakers warned. “It’s not realistic to stop Iran from developing a nuclear capacity. We are on a path similar to North Korea,” said James N. Miller,  senior vice president and director of studies for CNAS.

An earlier U.S. refusal to engage with the North Korean regime did not stop it from developing a nuclear capacity. Once the U.S. began to negotiate with North Korea through the six-party talks—together with China, Japan, and other countries—it became possible to begin imposing limits on its nuclear ambitions.

The West should take the same approach with Iran. Dennis Ross, a former Middle East negotiator who worked under Presidents Clinton and Bush, said U.S. can only confront Iran when it comes with “a big stick and a big carrot.” At present, it has neither.Military assaults would achieve little and the U.S. currently lacks the means of striking at Iran’s nuclear installations.

The next administration should convince European countries to cut economic ties to Iran as a prelude to nuclear talks. Eventually, the U.S. could restore diplomatic and economic relations as a reward for compliance. Refusal would lead to stringent international sanctions that would include European Union countries. Restarting relations with Iran won’t be easy and could take many years. It took Saudi Arabia and the U.K. five to seven years to establish diplomatic relations with Iran.

Speakers also said the United States must confront environmental issues.

Climate change is a global threat that will require more attention from the new national security team than it has gained under the current administration.  This will require the security and scientific communities to understand each other more clearly, said Jay Gulledge, senior scientist and program manager for science and impacts at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. “Scientists are not very good at communicating risk. The problem is far worse than many think,” he said. “Climate change is taking place faster than people expect.”

The U.S. will likely suffer more frequent and more intense natural disasters, which will impose more hardship and higher costs on the country than expected. Top officials in the next government will need to pay special attention to climate change from day one. “The national security community sees this as a slow moving problem. It thinks it will take place in a very gradual way over a very long time, but it’s not true,” said John Podesta, a former top policy official in the Clinton White House and now president and CEO of the Center for American Progress.              


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