Foreign Policy for the Future American President

MEMORANDUM

TO: The president-elect
RE: Foreign policy
FROM: Richard N. Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations

There are only two and a half months—76 days, to be precise— between Election Day and your Inauguration, and you will need every one of them to get ready for the world you will inherit. This is not the world you've been discussing on the trail for the last year or more: campaigning and governing could hardly be more different. The former is necessarily done in bold strokes and, to be honest, often approaches caricature. All candidates resist specifying priorities or trade-offs lest they forfeit precious support. You won, but at a price, as some of the things you said were better left unsaid. Even more important, the campaign did not prepare the public for the hard times to come.

There will be days when you will wonder why you worked so hard to get this job. What will make it so difficult is not just all that awaits, but the constraints that will limit what you can actually do. When George W. Bush became president nearly eight years ago the world was largely at peace, the U.S. military was largely at rest, oil was $23 a barrel, the economy was growing at more than 3 percent, $1 was worth 116 yen, the national debt was just under $6 trillion and the federal government was running a sizable budgetary surplus. The September 11 attacks, for all they cost us as a nation, increased the world's willingness to cooperate with us. You, by contrast, will inherit wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, tired and stretched armed forces, a global struggle with terrorism, oil that has ranged as high as $150 a barrel, a weaker dollar (now worth 95 yen), substantial anti-American sentiment, a federal budget deficit that could reach $1 trillion in your first year, a ballooning national debt of some $10 trillion and a global economic slowdown that will increase instability in numerous countries.

You will take office two decades after the end of the cold war. What some dubbed the unipolar moment is history. Economic, political and military power is held by many hands, not all of which belong to states, not all of which are benign. This does not mean the United States is weak. To the contrary, this country is still the single most powerful entity in the world. But the United States cannot dominate, much less dictate, and expect that others will follow. There are limits to U.S. resources; at the same time the country has serious vulnerabilities. Enron, Abu Ghraib, Katrina and the financial crisis have taken their toll: America's ability to tell others what to do, or to persuade them through example, is much diminished.

Against this backdrop, you will face specific challenges. Many are to be found in the greater Middle East, the part of the world where every president beginning with Jimmy Carter has stubbed his toe. Consider Iraq, the issue that most dominated the foreign policy of Bush. There will be ample time for historians to sort out the wisdom (or lack thereof) of embarking on this costly war of choice. The priorities now are to gradually reduce U.S. force presence, back the integration of Iraq's Sunni minority into national institutions, persuade Arab states to help the government and resume a dialogue with Iran on Iraq's future. The good news is that many of the arrows in Iraq are finally pointing in the right direction and it will not dominate your presidency. The bad news is that you know you are in for a rough ride when Iraq is the good news.

The arrows are pointing in the opposite direction in Afghanistan. The Taliban is gaining ground; security is deteriorating; drugs and corruption are rampant. More U.S. and NATO troops are needed, but any increase will need to be temporary, given rising Afghan nationalism. The chief priority should be training Afghanistan's Army and police. Regular talks are needed with those with a stake in the country's future, including Iran, Pakistan, India, China, Russia and NATO. The government should be encouraged to meet with Taliban leaders willing to accept a ceasefire. Counterdrug efforts, while essential, should be targeted and low-key, lest an alienated populace grow more so.

It may be better to view Afghanistan and Pakistan as one problem, since Pakistan provides sanctuary for the Taliban. Pakistan's government appears unable or unwilling to control its own territory. The country's return to democracy is at best incomplete and fragile; its economy has slowed. The world's second-most-populous Muslim nation—home to 170 million people, several dozen nuclear weapons and many of the world's terrorists, including Al Qaeda—is failing. Promised assistance should continue to flow; additional economic and military aid should be provided to bolster the government, but only if Islamabad accepts conditions on its use. Military incursions targeting terrorists need to be limited to those instances where there is a high likelihood of accomplishing something truly substantial.

Iran constitutes another challenge where the campaign generated more heat than light. If Tehran continues its current progress in enriching uranium, early on in your presidency you will be presented with the choice of attacking Iran (or greenlighting an Israeli attack) or living with a nuclear Iran. Yogi Berra said that when you approach a fork in the road, take it. I respectfully disagree. Neither option is attractive. A military strike may buy some time, but it won't solve the problem. It will, however, lead to Iranian retaliation against U.S. personnel and interests in Iraq and Afghanistan, and much higher oil prices—the last thing the world needs, given the financial crisis. An Iran with nuclear weapons or the capacity to produce them quickly would place the Middle East on a hair trigger and lead several Arab states to embark on nuclear programs of their own.

I would suggest that we work with the Europeans, Russia and China to cobble together a new diplomatic package to present to the Iranians. Ideally, Iran would be persuaded to give up its independent enrichment capability or, if it refused, to consider accepting clear limits on enrichment and intrusive inspections so that the threat is clearly bounded. We should be prepared to have face-to-face talks with the Iranians, without preconditions. In general, it is wiser to see negotiations not as a reward but as a tool of national security.

It will be important, too, to ratchet up diplomacy vis-à-vis the Israelis and Palestinians. The current impasse threatens Israel's future as a secure, democratic, prosperous and Jewish state. It breeds radicalism among Palestinians and throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds, and is a major source of anti-Americanism. What is more, time is working against us: physical and political developments will only make it harder to achieve a two-state solution.

We cannot solve this problem quickly—those Palestinians who are willing to compromise for peace are too weak, and those who are strong are not willing to compromise—but we can bolster Palestinian moderates who, over time, could be partners for Israel. Sooner rather than later you should be prepared to articulate your vision of a fair and stable peace, press Israel to stop settlement activity and push Arab governments and the European Union to do more to raise Palestinian living standards. Hamas should be told that abiding by a ceasefire is a must if it is to participate in any Palestinian election or diplomatic effort.

A New Strategic Framework
Other challenges are equally urgent: contending with a nuclear North Korea; working to moderate a resentful and resurgent Russia; brokering peace between Israel and Syria; and taking steps to stabilize those African countries beset by civil strife. But at the same time, it's important not to lose sight of the fundamentals. Unlike most previous eras, in which the dominant threat was posed by a great-power rival, ours is the era of globalization, in which flows of just about anything—from people, dollars and drugs to arms, greenhouse gases and viruses—move across borders in great volume and with great velocity. Many of these flows represent real threats. The problem is that global arrangements have not kept pace.

The economic institutions created in the wake of World War II (the IMF in particular) require updating. We similarly lack machinery for dealing with climate change, energy security, the spread of nuclear materials, disease and the threat of terrorism. Dean Acheson, Harry Truman's secretary of state, immodestly but accurately titled his memoir "Present at the Creation." Your goal should be no less ambitious: to design and implement a foreign policy that closes the gap between this era's major challenges and the international architecture and rules meant to manage them.

America cannot do this by itself; the challenges of this era have no single national origin and no national solution. Multilateralism is the only realistic way ahead. The operative term is "integration." We need to bring other major powers into the design and operation of the world—before the century is overwhelmed by the forces globalization has unleashed. This will require sustained consultations followed by sustained negotiations. (This poses no problem, as our diplomats are much less stretched than our soldiers.) It will also require American leadership. There is a real opportunity to make progress: many of today's powers understand that they will either cooperate with one another or pay a steep price.

People Matter
There will be time to do detailed interagency reviews of policies toward these and other challenges. Let me make a few general recommendations. First, people matter. Very little about history is inevitable. You have talked about a bipartisan administration, and should make this happen. The next four years promise to be difficult, and you do not want to try to lead the country with narrow majorities.

One of these people deserves special mention. The vice president should be your counselor, a minister without portfolio, and not a cabinet secretary with a specific set of responsibilities. You need someone with an administration-wide perspective who can tell you what you need to hear, even if it isn't always what you want to hear. The one person around you (other than your spouse) you cannot fire is best placed to do this. That said, you should reduce the size and role of the VP's staff. The interagency process is sufficiently sclerotic without adding yet another national-security bureaucracy to the mix.

Avoid big reorganizations. The last two—Homeland Security and the intelligence community—have been less than total successes. Your inbox is sufficiently daunting without the added strain of reorganization; it is rarely a good idea to remodel the operating room when the patient is on the table. The one exception may be energy policy, which has never received the attention it merits. Energy policy is national-security policy.

Facing Up to Facts
Speaking of energy, the current situation is untenable. We are channeling vast numbers of dollars to some of the world's most unsavory governments, strengthening them while leaving ourselves vulnerable to supply interruptions and price fluctuations.

Prices have come down recently as demand has dropped off, but recession cannot become our energy policy. Substantial research demonstrates that we can reduce consumption without slowing economic growth. Your campaign didn't talk much about conservation or efficiency, but the greatest potential for making a difference over the next four years is just this. I am talking not about carbon taxes but rather the setting of energy standards for what this country produces and does. We can offer tax breaks and subsidies as long as they are linked to greater efficiency and "greenness." We should devote resources to the development of alternatives, although resources will be in short supply and developing alternatives will take time.

Trade is also worth talking about now, even though it was hardly mentioned after the Ohio primary. By the time you take office it will have been 19 months since the president enjoyed trade promotion authority, which gives him the ability to negotiate complex multilateral trade agreements by limiting Congress to a straight up-or-down vote. Several bilateral free-trade agreements are languishing at considerable cost to our economy and to our relationship with friends such as Colombia.

It will be important to resurrect your ability to negotiate and conclude trade pacts. A new global trade agreement offers the best noninflationary, anti-recession tool for the American and global economies. Estimates are that a new global agreement could add as much as 1 percent growth each year to the U.S. and world economies. Trade brings an added benefit: it is an engine of development for poor countries. Access to the American market can provide jobs and wealth. This will be especially important given that we are unlikely to have as much money for foreign aid.

I'd like to think the arguments in favor of open trade would carry the day, because on the merits they do. The most successful sector of our economy right now consists of firms that export. Imports give consumers choice and keep inflation low. Job losses tend to be tied to technological change, not imports or offshoring. But I've learned that facts are only part of the story in politics. The only way you are likely to win a debate on trade is if you do more to cushion individual workers from the vagaries of modern global life. This means tax-deferred retraining and education accounts, and a health-care option not linked to jobs. So if you are going to press for health care, I suggest you link it to trade.

Trade is not the only area where America needs to make sure we stay open for business. We must encourage others to continue to recycle their dollars here—in part by buying and investing in American companies. We require $2 billion a day just to stay afloat. Blocking legitimate investments can also trigger crises in important bilateral relationships. Such protectionism must be resisted at all costs.

You ran hard against Bush in this campaign, and understandably so, given his historically low approval ratings. But you should be wary of distancing yourself too far from his administration. This is especially important because Bush already distanced himself from himself in his second term. Remarkably, he leaves behind a good deal you can build on: programs to combat HIV/AIDS around the world, diplomatic efforts in the Middle East, a strategic breakthrough with India, important consultative arrangements with China and a good relationship with Brazil, increasingly the anchor of a centrist bloc of South American countries.

One area, however, where you would be wise to put some distance between yourself and "43" involves democracy. America does not have the ability to transform the world. Nor do we have the luxury. We need to focus more on what countries do than on what they are. This is not an argument for ignoring human rights or setting aside our interest in promoting democracy. But we should go slow and focus on building its prerequisites—the checks and balances of civil society and constitutionalism—and not rush elections or impose political change through force. Bush was right when he called for a humble foreign policy. You should practice what he preached.

Let me close where I began. This is a sobering moment in American history. You begin with a good deal of popular support, but mandates must be replenished. I suggest you think of the Oval Office as a classroom, and explain to the American people what we need to accomplish and what it will require. Some 21st-century version of the fireside chat is called for. My reading of things is that the American people are ready to be leveled with. Once the campaign is over, let the leveling begin.

Join the Discussion