An Ambitious Foreign Policy Agenda for the First Hundred Days

Nov 13, 2012Leslie Bull

As part of the "Millennial Priorities for the First 100 Days" series, suggestions for how Obama can ramp up his foreign policy agenda.

Now that President Obama has officially been re-elected to a second term as the 44th president of the United States, it is time to put the campaign behind us and think about what comes next. A president’s first 100 days is traditionally the time during which he is most able to push through new legislation, as his power and influence are at a post-election peak. So what should Obama do with this period of opportunity? This is a large and multi-faceted question, but one area of the president’s agenda must be foreign policy. I am a member of the Millennial generation who is deeply invested in the direction our foreign policy takes and believe the issues listed below are especially important to those of us who will be inheriting the world that President Obama is shaping for us.

  • First, and possibly most obviously, President Obama will have to choose a new Secretary of State. Along with many other members of his administration, Hillary Clinton made it clear long ago that she will be stepping down for President Obama’s second term. The forerunners for possible replacements include John Kerry (whose Senate seat Democrats are no longer worried about losing after unexpected gains in the election) and Susan Rice, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. (who, although capable, has recently been tainted by her association with the administration’s initially false accounts of the attack in Benghazi, Libya.) Whoever he chooses, the new Secretary of State should be nominated as soon as possible to ensure that there is no gap in leadership.
  • Early on, it is crucial that he figure out how tough a stance to take on China. While both candidates competed to be perceived as more hawkish toward China on the campaign trial, experts expect more moderate action than campaign rhetoric would have had us believe. I would like to see a continuation of the perhaps frustrating but smart policy of maintaining a balancing act between curbing China’s problematic behavior (by continuing to bring trade cases against it when it violates free trade agreements), developing good relations with the new Chinese government set to take over soon, and reassuring our allies in the region that although the U.S. must work with China, we are not abandoning them. At this time, China and the U.S. are simply too important to one another’s well being for either to develop an overly antagonistic position unless it becomes absolutely necessary.
  • He must figure out under what circumstances we would intervene militarily to help defend the Syrian people. Neither candidate seriously considered this possibility on the campaign trail. But Foreign Policy predicts this position is likely to be severely tested. As refugee flows increase, atrocities multiply, extremist groups gain traction, and the civil war spills over into neighboring states, Americans may want more decisive action from their leaders.
  • President Obama must also re-commit to development assistance. While traditional development aid certainly has its problems, working to improve the lives of those living in developing countries is one area in which the U.S. is seen as a global leader. Now that President Obama has safely been elected to a second term, the development community believes that he has the chance to be ‘bolder’ on foreign aid. Initiatives to do this would include re-committing to USAID Forward, implementing the agency’s broad reform agenda, defending poverty and humanitarian accounts from budget cuts, expanding the reach of the Feed the Future program to support more smallholder farmers, and continuing the Global Health Initiative. I would also recommend increasing/improving foreign aid to Afghanistan as we further withdraw from a nation that continues to be deeply troubled. Using the enthusiasm of the first 100 days might allow President Obama to push through actions like these when they might otherwise be blocked or pushed aside as unimportant. Even if spending concerns constrain the president’s ability to increase development assistance, he can still improve the efficacy of such programs by focusing on reform instead of expansion.
  • Another issue that President Obama mentioned on the campaign trail, in his acceptance speech, and afterward is the need to work on ending America’s dependence on foreign oil. The fact that he has so frequently brought up this issue means that he has created the expectation that he will deal with it soon. Given that he has talked about the bipartisan nature of the issue, a good place to start would be to reach out to Republicans on the issue during the unprecedented period of post-election goodwill between the two parties (as evidenced by the unusually conciliatory and cooperative language coming out of Republican congressional leaders). We might also see legislation to further cut subsidies for oil companies and investment in clean energy alternatives (mostly as a publicity-generating measure) in order to make it clear that this is an issue President Obama actually plans to tackle during his second term.
  • Start garnering political support for a negotiated solution for Iran’s nuclear program and develop the process and substance for an agreement that restrains it. Given that Iran is unlikely to give us a reason for military intervention in the next 100 days, there is still room for diplomacy, but U.S. unilateral action will not have nearly as strong an impact as internationally supported action will. Given how overwhelmingly in favor of President Obama our international allies were during the election, now is a good time to leverage their post-election relief into unprecedented coordination on Iran and setting a concrete agenda for limiting Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

Although this is certainly not an exhaustive list, it is enough to show that President Obama needs to do a lot of tone-setting on foreign policy in the beginning of his second term. At a very general level, the president needs to figure out how hawkish a foreign policy he wants to pursue. He certainly doesn’t want to be perceived as weak, but neither would it be prudent to be overly aggressive when we have so many troubles at home. Hopefully President Obama will use his first 100 days to provide clarity about where he stands on these pressing foreign policy issues. However, he shouldn’t forget that now may be the time he is most able to let his inner progressive off the leash and incorporate that into the foreign policy tone he chooses to set.

Leslie Bull is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network Senior Fellow in Defense and Diplomacy and a senior political science major at Yale University.


Barack Obama image via

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