State of the World: Obama's Biggest Foreign Policy Challenges

Other international actors will control what the president must focus on in his second term.

President Barack Obama speaks about immigration reform Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013, at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas.
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Other international actors will control what the president must focus on in his second term.

As President Obama's new cabinet works on setting the administration's second-term agenda, foreign policy scholars at the Brookings Institution published a Presidential Briefing Book of recommendations. Robert Kagan, a senior foreign policy fellow at Brookings and a member of the State Department's Foreign Affairs Policy Board, recently spoke with U.S. News about the president's anticipated agenda, imminent foreign policy challenges, and diplomatic opportunities. Excerpts:

What will President Obama's foreign policy agenda likely focus on?

His agenda will be set by other actors in the international system more than he will be able to control it. Clearly, events in Syria, a possible crisis involving Iran, and things happening in the waters of East Asia are more likely to drive his agenda than whatever he would like to spend his time doing.

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What is the most imminent challenge of Obama's second term?

Syria is probably the thing that's going to be front and center. He obviously is trying to avoid any deeper involvement, but I think it's going to be very difficult to do so as things get worse in Syria and the price of not doing anything gets higher. Coming close on the heels of that is going to be Iran developing a [nuclear] capability.

How urgent is the issue of Iran's nuclear ambitions?

It's very urgent. I think the administration understands that they need to find some answer either diplomatically or otherwise. Secretary [of State John] Kerry said the clock is ticking, and I think that means it's ticking this year.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Iran.]

Should there be direct contact with the Iranian government?

They should make clear that Iranians need to take seriously that the United States is willing to have a diplomatic settlement of this problem. If not, [Iran] ought to take very seriously the statements that the president and secretary of state have made about preventing them from having a nuclear weapon.

What changes should be made in global economic policy?

One major goal should be to begin negotiating a free trade agreement with Europe, to broaden the free trade agreements in Latin America in the Western Hemisphere, and move ahead with the trans-Pacific partnership, which is free trade agreements in Asia.

How has the fiscal crisis affected the American reputation abroad?

I do think that an inability to get some control of our fiscal difficulties will cause people around the world to worry whether that will limit our ability to act in the international system.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

Should the United States continue with development and aid efforts?

I think that we make a very serious mistake in imagining that the [small] savings that can be had, both in terms of development aid and in terms of the defense budget, are the answer to our fiscal problem.

What can the United States do to facilitate democratic movements abroad?

We can start by being more involved in the democratization efforts that are already taking place in Egypt, where the administration has been too reluctant to express our strong support for genuine democratic opening. [Whether] we stand by and allow Syria to become a failed state or allow [Bashar al-]Assad to remain in power will have a big impact on any hope for liberal change in the Middle East.

What might President Obama's foreign policy legacy look like four years from now?

I'm hopeful that the president will use the second term as an opportunity to shape the world in a more liberal direction. I don't think he has much to show for his first term, but he could do a lot in his second term.

  • See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.
  • Read the U.S. News Debate: Should the United States Consider Military Action to Hinder Iran's Nuclear Program?
  • Read the US. News Debate: Given The Current Deficit Crisis, Should Foreign Aid Be Cut?