The Foreign Policy Initiative, a new Washington think tank, gathered together scholars, reporters, and those with an interest in foreign policy last week for its second Forum at the W Hotel, itself recently arrived on the Washington scene. Many current issues from China to the Middle East were discussed at the event, titled Restoring America’s Leadership of a Democratic World, but much talk focused on the New START treaty, the ratification of which Obama has called a top national security priority. Generally, opinions at the forum weren’t optimistic that this would happen, and events since have borne out those predictions.
Stephen Rademaker, senior counsel at the BGR group, noted that presidents who lose control in midterm elections commonly shift to foreign policy because their domestic agenda is dead. That leaves Foreign Policy as the area where the president can best push his initiatives because he has almost exclusive control. Rademaker listed the top three issues he thinks Obama will focus on: the reset on relations with Russia, Iran, and the middle east peace process, adding that START is central to the so-named Russian reset. He also mentioned that the administration might work to improve its reputation for focusing on human rights and democracy stating that this is an area where the administration seems particularly vulnerable.
The difficulties that the administration will face with Russia were made clear by another speaker, Boris Nemtsov, who was the keynote speaker during Monday’s lunch. Nemtsov is a former deputy prime minister of Russia and a co-founder of the Russian political party Union of Right Forces, and more recently, in 2008, founded the opposition movement “Solidarity” with Garry Kasparov.
Mr. Nemtsov was unequivocal in his belief that the primary need of the Russian people is democracy and human rights, and that any long-term strategy must support that. He said that the Russian people have no idea of Obama’s positions on these issues, likening his current friendliness toward Putin to realpolitik, but cautioning that Putin would see silence on Human Rights issues not as a sign of friendship and acomodation but as one of weakness.
Although his focus was on Human Rights, Mr. Nemtsov declared his support for the START treaty as addressing an important need for inspection and control of nuclear arsenals. But this single issue of support abroad is now facing further challenges at home. Senator Kyl, considered a key vote, has indicated that START will probably not be passed this year, setting a timeline which raises doubts that it will ever be ratified in the Senate.
Mr. Scheunemann of Orion Strategies LLC who spoke on the same panel as Mr. Rademaker thought lauded the foreign policy experience and background of the incoming members of congresss and said that he did not think START would pass without serious changes including funding for missile defense and nuclear infrastructure. During his speech Representative Buck McKeon (R-CA), a likely candidate for the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said that he was very concerned with cutbacks in missile defense and listed it as a particular example of a time when Congress should have exercised its oversight authority.
The opinions and predictions at this conference, both foreign and domestic, gave an indication of the challenges that the Obama administration will face as it attempts to move forward with its agenda. Although the president is often seen as supreme in foreign policy if he wishes to accomplish his objectives and win a place in history he will have to find a way to work with those at home who hold dissenting views and skeptical politicians abroad. Perhaps it is time for a little less pragmatism and a little more hope.