Opinion | nicholas burns

Three crises that can’t wait

The plight of a homeless man in Camden, N.J., highlights the state of the economy.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
The plight of a homeless man in Camden, N.J., highlights the tepid state of the economy.

With his dramatic victory in Tuesday’s election, President Obama must now pivot quickly to address three urgent foreign policy issues that may go a long way to determine the success of his second-term agenda. By any objective standard, Obama produced a successful international record during the past four years. He brought us out of Iraq, took the fight to Al Qaeda, resurrected our global credibility, and charted a new policy to sustain American power in Asia.

But there is no rest for the weary in international politics. Obama now faces a sea of strategic challenges from ongoing terrorist threats to climate change, the European debt crisis, a rogue regime in North Korea, and the uncertain path of the Arab revolutions.

Three big crises, however, will not wait much beyond inauguration day. The most important is, by far, the economy. America’s power abroad has always depended on our economic health at home. We won’t be able to afford our first-rate armed forces and Foreign Service without a revived economy.


The president’s major challenge is to convince the Republican leadership to agree on a compromise tax and budget package and thereby avoid the dreaded fiscal cliff. If he can do so in the next six weeks, it will put not just our economy but also our international policy and reputation back in solid shape. If he cannot, it will raise increased doubts internationally about the capacity of our political system to make even the most elementary decisions about our economic future.

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This is critical for our international leadership and credibility. Great powers rise and fall on their economic foundations. We are no different. That is another reason why the stakes are so high for the budget showdown ahead.

Afghanistan is a second critical challenge. It was striking that the fate of our 11-year war effort — the longest in American history — was barely discussed during the marathon campaign. The president intends to withdraw the bulk of our 68,000 troops in just over a year. But he has some tough decisions to make before that happens. Will he choose to leave a residual force of a few thousand troops in the country to be available to strike at the many terrorist groups on the Afghan-Pakistan border that still threaten us?

Many leaders in both parties prefer to leave lock, stock, and barrel. But that risks undermining an Afghan government that might well collapse without our active military support. An even tougher decision is to decide whether to negotiate with the Taliban to end the fighting. It will be a bitter pill to talk with the leadership that harbored Osama bin Laden but may be the surest and quickest way to bring our troops home.

Finally, the president will need to make key decisions about the turbulent and increasingly unstable Middle East. With 30,000 Syrians dead in a vicious civil war that has no end in sight, the United States must find a way to work with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and others to provide more effective support to the rebel factions fighting the Assad government. There are real risks in arming the rebels and launching a more aggressive effort to isolate President Bashar Assad. But the risk of inaction may even be greater — the war could spread to Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq, and destabilize the entire region.


Another urgent Middle East issue is Iran’s nuclear threat. With sanctions finally starting to bite hard, this may be the time for Obama to agree to direct negotiations with Iran for the first time in three decades. He will have a brief window in the first half of 2013 and is right to give diplomacy and negotiations a real try before contemplating the use of force.

Obama has an opportunity to become a transformational president in foreign policy. He urged Americans, in his acceptance speech, to “move with confidence beyond this time of war.” He is poised to lead us past the 9/11 decade to rebuild American strength overseas and restore a hopeful and positive American leadership in the world. He has the advantage of a country much more united on foreign policy than domestic. But he will have to turn first to the burning issues of the economy, Afghanistan, and the Middle East in the weeks ahead.

Nicholas Burns is a professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. His column appears regularly in the Globe.