Forward? Barack Obama’s second term

By Chris Raggett, Assistant editor

Although foreign policy played a small role in the US presidential campaign late last year, the way Barack Obama handles Iran before 2016 could determine how the president goes down in history. So argues Mark Fitzpatrick, the director of the IISS’s non-proliferation programme, speaking at a discussion meeting last week about Obama’s upcoming second term.

Over the weekend, Iran signalled it might return in late February to talks with the international community over its disputed nuclear programme. However, the country has also recently notified the UN nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, that it will be installing new, more efficient centrifuges at its uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz. This would dramatically shorten the time it would take Tehran to ‘break-out’ and make a nuclear bomb after expelling IAEA inspectors. Fitzpatrick, who believes there is the chance that some sort of military action ‘may come into play’ in the next four years to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, has said the installation of new centrifuges would be a ‘game changer‘.

Obama made key commitments to advancing nuclear disarmament soon after he first came to power in 2009. But the ambitions he outlined in a speech in Prague have met with many obstacles, including Pakistan’s nuclear competitiveness with India in Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty talks, Israeli security concerns that were preventing the Middle East from becoming a WMD-free zone; and Brazil’s principled obstruction of new IAEA safeguards.

In general, Fitzpatrick predicted that Obama’s second-term handling of international affairs ‘will be reactive rather than proactive’. However, he welcomed a recent announcement that US Vice President Joe Biden would soon begin talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov over reducing nuclear weaponry, and he suggested that a separate arrangement on cooperative missile defence would be possible if Russia were to drop its insistence on a legal guarantee that US missile defences would not be directed against its strategic forces.

Obama promised to make US ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty a priority in his Prague speech, and such an achievement would ‘most clearly constitute a tangible step toward disarmament’ for America’s allies, Fitzpatrick said. The ‘technical arguments in support of the treaty are beyond dispute’ as ‘advances in stockpile stewardship make re-testing of US weapons unnecessary’.

However, passing the treaty would require the support of 12 Republican senators, which may not be forthcoming if recent efforts to block a UN bill on disabled rights are any indication. The GOP seems increasingly creative in its attempts to stymie Obama policy.

Although a forthcoming US Department of Defense paper may provide ‘the justification to reduce offensively deployed strategic nuclear weapons to 1,000 warheads, or even fewer’, Fitzpatrick said, efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear programme were not working as Tehran had ‘not been very interested in engagement or negotiation’.

IISS Senior Fellow for Transatlantic Affairs Dana Allin, who also spoke at the event, pointed out that: ‘America’s bitter polarisation does not look like favourable terrain for political action that would require great changes.’

Both speakers agreed that climate change will advance up the president’s foreign-policy agenda in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. If the United States could come close to meeting the provisions for environmental sustainability detailed in the Kyoto Protocol, Allin said, it would be well positioned to lead the international community on energy reform, even if neither Obama nor Romney ‘had been willing to say much on [the subject] while campaigning’.

Allin, the editor of the institute’s journal Survival, described the 2012 presidential elections as putting ‘the status of American society on the ballot’ in a way that was unique in recent years. He pointed to the president’s energetic defence of liberal values in his inauguration speech as suggesting a Democratic realignment comparable to that of the Republican Party in the Nixon–Reagan years.

Obama’s actions in his first term suggest his image as ‘a great conciliator’ was exaggerated, said Allin. The president made progress on issues such as healthcare and tax reform by standing his ground, even saying ‘I’m not going to negotiate again on the debt ceiling’ and refusing to answer calls from Congressional Republicans. His second term will likely be characterised by aggression on both sides of the aisle, with compromises being reached only when one party’s position is untenable.

Download a copy of Mark Fitzpatrick’s prepared remarks


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