Living with a democratic hegemon isn’t easy. Every four years, as 300 million Americans convulse themselves with a presidential election, the other 6.6 billion people on the planet must wait as the candidates slug it out.
Treaty talks, potentially life-or-death decisions and diplomatic appointments are stuck in limbo. Then, depending on the outcome, the rest of the world must brace for a bad case of policy whiplash, as a new U.S. administration seeks to undo the work of its predecessor, preferably starting on that all-too-familiar day one.
At the least, President Barack Obama’s re-election has averted that dizzying prospect. This may be one reason so many world leaders seemed to react with relief. A little continuity isn’t bad, especially given the Robespierre-like intensity with which voters have dispatched other world leaders since the financial crisis.
Another good omen for progress is the “I’ll have what he’s having” approach to foreign policy that Mitt Romney adopted in the final presidential debate, which points to a sunlit patch of bipartisan ground on Iran, Syria and Afghanistan. And Democratic gains in the Senate will make that chamber more likely to focus, as far as the president’s foreign policy is concerned, on “advise and consent” than “obstruct and destroy.” Perhaps Obama was right when he inadvertently remarked over an open microphone to Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev last March that, after his “last election,” he would have more “flexibility” to get things done.
We have a few suggestions about where to start, beginning with some cans that are too big to keep kicking down the road.
Exhibit A is the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran. The administration’s approach is having an impact: Sanctions continue to erode the Iranian economy, and to incite public dissatisfaction with the Islamic regime. In particular, the rial has slumped as much as 40 percent against the dollar since August, leading to spiraling inflation.
Now Obama needs to intensify the pressure by persuading India, Japan and South Korea to make further reductions in Iranian imports; banning all transactions -- not just oil-related business -- with the Central Bank of Iran and its satellites; expanding sanctions beyond petroleum production to all aspects of the Iranian energy sector, which is fully controlled by the congressionally blacklisted Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps; and perhaps working to keep Western insurers and reinsurers from issuing policies related to Iranian trade.
The president will also have to come to some understanding with Israel on where to draw a “red line” on Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon, and the circumstances that would lead to military action.
Although the Obama administration vehemently denied reports that it agreed to direct talks with the Iranians, we don’t object to such discussions. They just shouldn’t reward Iran for half-measures: Until Tehran agrees to strictly enforced limits on uranium enrichment and inspections that give the world comfort it cannot build a nuclear bomb, the heat stays on.
Syria is competing with Iran for the top slot on Obama’s foreign policy to-do list. This crisis has no good or simple fix, and there certainly isn’t a strong desire among Americans to undertake another armed intervention a la Iraq or Afghanistan. Still, the administration has been slow to take those actions that it could.
With the elections over, whoever replaces Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should begin to engage publicly with Syrians fighting inside the country. Obama should get more clandestine U.S. personnel on the ground to support Syria’s non-Islamist opposition, identify a potential transitional leadership, and take control of the flow of weapons to the Free Syrian Army from Saudi Arabia and Qatar to ensure that arms don’t fall into the hands of jihadist and other groups.
In the broader region, Obama can’t sustain his see-no-evil, speak-no-evil approach to the brewing tumult in the Gulf kingdoms. Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, has been rocked by unrest. Previously quiet Jordan and Kuwait have lately experienced protests. And those are just the visible hotspots.
Obama officially supports the expansion of democracy throughout the Mideast. That commitment would be severely tested by any popular uprising in the Gulf kingdoms. Accordingly, the president would be wise to privately lean on the Gulf monarchs to usher in democratic reforms now rather than risk losing power (not to mention life and liberty) altogether.
As more Arab political systems open up, Islamic parties are sure to gain influence. The administration needs to redouble efforts to establish, when possible, trusting relationships with these forces. The U.S. can’t dictate the course of the Arab awakening, but it can be better prepared to navigate its twists and turns.
Durable progress just about anywhere in the Middle East will require at least grudging cooperation with China and Russia, nuclear-armed United Nations Security Council members with strong -- and in China’s case, growing -- geostrategic interests there. Both countries were also the targets of some heavy-handed rhetoric on the campaign trail. Two quick, mutually beneficial ways to dispel some post-campaign tensions would be for the U.S. to speed the next meeting of the high-profile U.S.- China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, which it will host early next summer, and for the lame-duck Congress to pass legislation that would grant Russia permanent normal trade relations status by repealing the obsolete anti-Soviet Jackson-Vanik Amendment of 1974.
Awarding such trade relations would also help increase U.S. exports to what is the world’s seventh biggest economy, but only its 20th biggest trading partner.
That brings us to the last item on our to-do list and the first thing on most Americans’ minds: jobs.
In his 2010 State of the Union address, Obama vowed to double U.S. exports by the end of 2014. The U.S. isn’t on track to reach that goal. Obama should intensify the effort by pressing harder for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement that was first initiated under President George W. Bush, and for a U.S.-European Union free-trade pact, which, according to a Bloomberg Government analysis, would eliminate $6.4 billion in annual duties on U.S. exports.
And if Obama was serious about working with Romney to move the country forward, one easy way to do so would be to pursue expanded trade with Latin America, particularly Brazil and Argentina, which the Republican candidate rightly identified as emerging powerhouses.
Of course, many other global challenges loom for the second Obama administration, from a tottering European Union, to the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process, to North Korea, to a melting Arctic. But first things first. The world has been waiting. Time to get back to business -- until 2016, that is.
Today’s highlights: Visit the Ticker for election commentary, including Mary Duenwald on the prospects of a carbon tax, James Greiff on restoring Wall Street-White House ties and Zara Kessler on Mitt Romney’s 49 percent problem.
Plus, the editors on how President Barack Obama can avoid the fiscal cliff; Caroline Baum on why Congress doesn’t listen to voters; Clive Crook on how Obama can make this election matter; Ezra Klein on the opening for filibuster reform; W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm on the California business that might come to Texas; Odd Arne Westad on China’s more nationalistic leadership.
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