President Barack Obama’s recent inauguration marked the 21st time that a US president has “renewed his lease” at the White House.
The record of second-term presidents has been mixed. Some were unable to accomplish anything historically meaningful while others failed to complete their second term. Two were assassinated. And, naming no names, one faced the embarrassing prospect of impeachment – and resigned early.
Not all commanders-in-chief succumbed to this “second-term curse” – governing actively right through to the end, whereupon they passed the presidency on to a fellow party member. I can think of three recent leaders who fit these criteria: Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan (although, perhaps, some long-retired Nicaraguan Contras still feel cheated – Reagan never quite fulfilled their hopes).
Whether or not Barack Obama joins this small cohort of successful second-termers will largely depend on his ability to ride out Congressional gridlock and tackle the domestic challenges that most Americans view as threatening to their wellbeing. The country’s anemic economy is chief among these – with scarce jobs and soaring debt.
And if the American public were to judge Obama’s second term intentions against the yardstick of his second inauguration speech, they would have little doubt that their president really means to get down to domestic business this time around.
In that January 21 speech, Obama put forth an artfully crafted argument about why the major publicly-funded social programs for the poor and middle class really are pillars of economic growth and individual freedom.
At the same time, Obama largely avoided foreign policy issues. His “signature” first term initiatives, such as achieving a “global nuclear zero” or strengthening nuclear security worldwide were conspicuously absent, apparently warranting not even a perfunctory mention.
However, no matter how grave and time-consuming the country’s domestic woes might be, a contemporary US president simply does not have the luxury of turning his back on the world, and hope to go down in history as a successful leader.
There remain a number of international challenges that directly impact (or could eventually impact) important US interests in this increasingly volatile world.
Iran and North Korea are relentlessly advancing their nuclear and missile programs. Afghanistan is far from being a viable state, and Al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents spread violence throughout the greater Middle East and Africa. And then, of course, there is the peaceful but relentless rise of China.
While struggling with these inherited foreign policy problems, President Obama has also seen new challenges emerge on his watch, such as the EU economic crisis. Some initiatives his Administration put in place during his first term are now stalling: the “reset” with Russia is just one example.
These issues will require constant attention from Washington throughout Obama's second term and beyond. Nevertheless, my bet is that Obama will be able to divert even more energy to the domestic issues, provided he manages to forge deeper partnerships with other countries that can shoulder some of the costs in the international domain. Russia, properly incentivized, is one such country – it could do a great deal more to secure progress on a wide range of international issues that are vital to US interests.
The days when, in the words of Edward Abbey, humanity would not be free “until the last Kremlin commissar is strangled with the entrails of the last Pentagon chief of staff” certainly seem to have passed. But Russia still matters to the United States, and indeed the whole world, if only because of its geography, resources and other capabilities.
Post-Communist Russia's ability to advance (or disrupt) US-led efforts on non-proliferation, nuclear security, arms control, counter-terrorism, regional stability and energy supply is well understood.
Hopefully, Obama's selection of Democrat Senator John Kerry and former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel for the posts of foreign and defense secretaries will help bring the two sides closer to reaching a compromise on the issue, notably – it is one on which Obama has promised to display greater flexibility in his second term. Kerry and Hagel are viewed in both Washington and Moscow as pragmatists who advocate constructive engagement with Russia.
But with all the low-hanging fruit already picked, even these veteran politicians may find it hard to win Russia’s cooperation on these issues, especially since what began as a pre-election spat between Moscow and Washington seems to have continued to escalate.
The main obstacle toward reversing the current backslide and securing Moscow's greater cooperation is obvious: America's ballistic missile defense (BMD) program in Europe, which Russian leaders claim will (eventually) be capable of targeting and intercepting their ballistic missiles.
This missile defense dispute can be resolved. But this would require both sides to display the goodwill needed to reach a compromise, possibly in the form of a founding act on missile defense cooperation which contains mutual non-targeting pledges, but which stops short of requiring ratification.
The act would emulate the 1997 NATO-Russia cooperation act, and establish continuing channels for sharing information, including radar data and interceptor technologies.
The BMD act should pave the way for complimentary capabilities of information and interception components of the US/NATO and Russian missile defense systems. One of the first steps should be introduction of continuous sharing of information, including radar data and interceptor technologies.
And to the conservatives who oppose such mutual exchange, I say this: remember that, even in the heat of the Cold War, the father of Star Wars (Reagan, not George Lucas) deemed it necessary to promise to share US missile defense technologies with the “Evil Empire,” on condition that the latter agreed to bilateral nuclear cuts.
Of course, even deep US-Russian BMD cooperation will not be a cure-all. Russia’s leaders may favor a transactional approach, bundling issues in negotiations with stronger counterparts, but I see no possible deals that could allow America to secure Russia’s assistance in managing China's rise as Washington would, in an ideal world, prefer.
A BMD deal certainly could reverse the recent cooling in the bilateral relationship and ensure that the Kremlin remains a constructive partner on such issues of vital interest to the United States as deeper nuclear cuts, reinvention of the nuclear security partnership with Russia, and stabilization of Afghanistan. And, of course, such a deal will make America and its allies better protected against missile attacks. Moscow, which seems determined to terminate all the bilateral donor-recipient arrangements with the United States that date back to the 1990s, would also benefit from such a partnership of equals both militarily and geopolitically.
However, even the deep cooperation for which I (and others) hope, could prove unsustainable in the longer-term, unless it is put on solid economic foundations. As of 2012, Russia was 20th on the list of America’s trading partners, while for Russia the United States came 8th. Indicatively, given this trade imbalance, the United States did not make it onto the list of the top ten investors in Russia that year.
How to develop deeper economic ties, especially given America's progress toward self-sufficiency in energy and Russia's investment climate, is an issue that Obama, Putin and their successors will have to grapple with.
Simon Saradzhyan is a researcher at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center. His research interests include international security, arms control,
counter-terrorism as well as political affairs in post-Soviet states and their relations with major outside powers. Prior to joining the Belfer Center in 2008 Saradzhyan had worked as deputy editor of the Moscow Times and a consultant for the United Nations and World Bank. Saradzhyan holds a graduate degree from the Harvard University.
The views expressed in this column are the author’s alone.
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