Robert Nolan is an editor at the Foreign Policy Association and producer of the Great Decisions in Foreign Policy television series on PBS.
While foreign policy had a brief moment in the sun during this past election cycle, Americans are still clearly, and rightly, preoccupied with the challenges we face here at home. A CBS poll taken just before President Barack Obama was re-elected found that just 5 percent of Americans said foreign policy was an "issue of importance" before heading to the voting booth, and Americans across the political spectrum have indicated a distaste for military intervention, democracy promotion, and a number of other goals that have driven U.S. foreign policy in recent years.
In the coming weeks pundits across the country and indeed, here on this blog, will call for the president to do more to stop Iran from weaponizing its nuclear program, to chart a course that would remove Syria's brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad from power, and to rethink the response to the Arab Spring.
For the moment, the president should ignore them.
Instead, President Obama should focus on the five "intermestic" issues below that will resonate across political parties and help forge the kind of bipartisan solutions to America's problems the country yearns for today. Doing so will also create a solid foundation from which to re-engage the world on more explicit foreign policy issues like those mentioned above.
1. Rethink defense in an era of economic restraint. Task one for the Obama administration and the Republican-controlled Congress is to find an immediate solution to the "fiscal cliff" that would trigger automatic cuts to the U.S. defense budget come Jan. 1, 2013 to the tune of $50 billion a year though so-called "sequester." While Congress and the president could come to an agreement to reduce these cuts, there is agreement among the defense community that it's time for a major defense rethink. Michael Noonan's piece this week highlights some of the new thinking taking place on threat assessment and the allocation of defense dollars in an era of economic restraint. Getting this right is critical not just for national security, but will have profound implications for the U.S. federal budget in the long term.
2. Contain the euro zone crisis. As the U.S. economy sputters along, the same cannot be said for our friends across the Atlantic, and it could circle back to hurt us. "In the same way that the collapse of Lehman implied global shocks, a disorderly situation in the Euro zone is going to impact the United States," Nouriel Roubini, known in economic circles as "Dr. Doom," told my production team for Great Decisions in a recent interview. While Mario Draghi, the recently appointed president of the European Central Bank, has earned high marks for keeping interest rates low and pumping euros into banks across the region to help stabilize financial markets, the eurozone is expected to grow at an abysmal 0.1 percent in the coming year. The United States is the European Union's largest trading partner, and while American policymakers have a limited toolkit to work with, the Obama administration should continue to provide sound economic advice and support through international institutions like the International Monetary Fund.
3. Mend the fence with China. Typically, Beijing is quick to disregard American anti-China campaign rhetoric, but with more of its Chinese citizens watching than ever before as both President Obama and Mitt Romney pounded on China for its policies, you can expect a stronger reaction than in past election cycles. As China prepares for its own leadership transition, though, that response is likely to be a call for respect and more engagement. For the sake of the U.S. economy (China still buys more U.S. Treasury debt than any other country), the president should oblige while keeping all issues—from currency manipulation to cyber attacks against the United States and territorial claims in the South China Sea—on the table.
4. Confront border violence and immigration. The violence along the U.S.-Mexico border increased dramatically in recent years, impacting the lives of Americans along border towns and leaving roughly 60,000 Mexicans dead during the tenure of Mexican President Felipe Calderon. During this period, immigration to the United States has slowed, due both to violence and a sluggish U.S. economy. Some think immigration reform could be the key to kick-starting the U.S. economy, and a re-elected President Obama should engage early with his new counterpart, President-elect Enrique Pena Nieto, who has also made economic reform a top priority for his administration.
5. Encourage innovation and global competitiveness. The fear that the United States is a super power in decline has gained considerable traction during the past decade. Indeed, the United States has dropped from No. 1 in the World Economic Forum's 2008-2009 report on competitiveness to No. 7 in 2012. With the wars in the Middle East winding down, the administration should make global competitiveness a top priority. This means a renewed focus on reforms in education, energy, and technology that will keep America in its rightful place as a global leader in innovation.