Challenges Facing The Next US President: A Candid Discussion with Foreign Policy Experts

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2008 already looks to be a tumultuous year with the looming economic recession, gas prices possibly heading over $4 a gallon, chaos continuing to rule in Afghanistan and Iraq and Osama Bin Laden still at large. Against this backdrop, this year’s election will be the first truly open presidential election since 1952. At center stage stand Senator Barack Obama of Illinois and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. Never has a party begun a nomination contest with its two most celebrated candidates a woman and an African American. Whoever wins, the first 100 days of the new administration will be critical to setting the right priorities and tone.
Given this historic contest, the World Affairs Council of America recently held its 2008 National Conference with its main theme ‘US or US and Them: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Next Presidency’ which focused on identifying and discussing the most pressing foreign policy issues confronting the next American President. A record number of new voters including Asian Americans are turning out in large numbers to vote in the primaries. Prominent Obama supporter Kal Penn has been encouraging students and young professionals to vote in the primaries. Having had the privilege of meeting both Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton while they were campaigning in New Jersey, I wanted to get a first hand view of what were the challenges facing the next US president. I was enthused to find that this conference offered participants a historical, political, economic and cultural context on the most salient international issues confronting America today, with an opportunity for dynamic debate and conversation with some of the nation?s foremost experts on how to deal with those challenges.


Former President of Mexico – Vincente Fox (L); Former Senator and Presidential Candidate Gary Hart(R)

John Zogby – President and CEO Zogby International(L); James D. Wolfensohn – Former President of World Bank(R)

The distinguished panel of speakers included former World Leaders, Ambassadors, Generals, Politicians, Journalists, Foreign Policy experts et al. Among those in attendance were former President of Mexico- Vicente Fox, former World Bank President- James Wolfensohn, former National Security Advisor- Zbigniew Brzezinski, President and CEO of Zogby International -John Zogby and others.  Each year, the World Affairs Council recognizes well-known individual(s) for their lifetime achievements. This year honorees were former Congressman Lee Hamilton and former Secretary of State James Baker, the Co-Chairs of the Iraq Study Group.  Addressing the distinguished audience, former Congressman Lee Hamilton said, "We know that Osama Bin Laden is likely hiding in the northwest frontier of Pakistan in the tribal areas and it’s a frustration that President Musharaf is not allowing us to go after him in Pakistan." He added that in the euphemistic sense Bin Laden has to be removed. Though many nations hate us overseas, the world still looks to America for help and as the only surviving Superpower.
During a panel discussion on what should be the advise to the next President, Zbigniew Brzezinski a former National Security Advisor said, "Don?t undermine Presidential credibility – The US President had told the world that Iran is pursuing a nuclear program. How many people are going to believe us? It should not be based on loose talk or ideologies. The world believed President J F Kennedy when he informed them about Soviet missiles being stationed in Cuba. Today, how many would believe our President?" He also said, "Don?t fearmonger, because fear is a paralyzing condition. It clouds judgment and is inimical to rational decision making." He also offered advise to the new President, "Don?t divide instead of uniting and don?t unite instead of dividing, don’t Americanize foreign civil conflicts such as civil conflicts in southern Eurasia. They are internal conflicts although they do have foreign policy implications. We are running a risk of repeating what the Soviets did in Afghanistan. We did the same in Pakistan. We should be very prudent in using our military power."
Discussing about the challenges facing the next US President, Richard Haass- President of the Council on Foreign Relations said, "We need to be realistic in what we can do in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. There is a danger in quickly de-Americanizing there. The challenge for our next President is to determine the right mix of American involvement. None of these conflicts can be resolved by pulling out. Bad situations can get worst. The President also needs to be creative. There is not going to be many options for the US in dealing with international challenges. In my opinion, if there were one thing the President can do that would have ripple effects to enhance US strategic position in the world, that would be energy. If we can do something about the import and consumption of oil, this would bring down the cost of oil, remove high taxes, impact climate change etc."
Former President of Mexico- Vicente Fox was presented with the World Affairs Council’s first Annual International Statesmanship Award. He said, "There will be many challenges facing the next US President. Conflicts like the war on terrorism, Iran, Iraq, Middle East, Russia, China, climate changes, global epidemic, oil prices, financial crisis, the necessity for UN reform, the consolidation of multi-lateralism, the combat on poverty etc. There is an urgent need for US to change its foreign policy. The US should move from unilateral decision to multi lateral decision, respect the UN and ensure that UN assumes the role of bringing peace to the world. The call of the hour is the need for solidarity over selfishness, the need to unite and not divide, the need to rebuild the strategic alliances of this great nation like in the past- With Mexico, Canada and NAFTA."  He also emphasized that there is a need for a very strong and successful US leadership around the world. He added, "We miss the leader that showed us openness, competitiveness, how to open the markets and who showed us that the walls should be torn down. Today the very same leader is putting protectionism by building walls and it’s not clear as to who is on which side of the wall?"

Zbigniew Brzezinski – Former National Security Advisor to President (L); At the award ceremony with president of Mexico – Vicente Fox(R)

Dennis J Richardson – Australian Ambassador to the United States (L); Barbara Slavin – Sr. Diplomatic reporter for USA Today (R)

At the world bank with Gregory Berger – Senior Advisor(L); Ret. decorated US army General Barry McCaffrey(R)

General Jack Keane – Vice Chief of Staff US Army (Ret)

He said, "Today’s threat is not immigrants but isolation. Immigration is a shared responsibility and not just Mexico’s problem. Mexico and the US can do much better in trade. Over a million people cross the border every day.  The trading is close to $400B between US and Mexico.  Mexico is a worthy partner of US. Goldman Sachs has projected that in 2040, China will be the worlds largest economy followed by US, India, Japan and Mexico in second, third, fourth and fifth place respectively. This should motivate us to work closely together in national building and partners for prosperity and extend this to Central America."

James David Wolfensohn, the ninth president of the World Bank gave us his perspective on foreign policy. He expressed surprise that some of the issues have been ignored by the current 3 candidates -Senators John McCain, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The world’s population is currently over 6 Billion people. 1 Billion people live in rich countries and possess 80% of the global income. In 2025, the world’s population will be 9 billion people. The number of rich people in the developed world will increase by 100 Million whereas in the developing world it will increase to 2.9 Billion. Of the 100 million, 70 M will be in the US. Nine countries will account for half of that 2.9 Billion people increase- India, China, Pakistan, Nigeria, the DRC, Bangladesh, Uganda, and Ethiopia. India is expected to surpass China as the world’s most populous country by about 2025.

He further said, "The second compelling thing is what’s happening to economics. In 2025, the share of the  rich world will decrease from 80% to 40% whereas India and China’s share will increase to over 45% of global income. This is not normal growth but a tectonic shift. What is crucial is that from a foreign policy perspective we should recognize this. What is fascinating is that the three presidential candidates barely mentioned it. The US is still hugely powerful. Over  80,000 Indian and 65,000 Chinese students are studying in the US whereas only 9% of US students study in India and China and, over 60% study in Europe. We should ensure that our next generation is aware that the world is changing and there is more focus on India and China.

It was also a honor for me to meet with other distinguished leaders like Ambassador Ron Neumann, President, American Academy of Diplomacy, Ambassador  Marc Grossman, Vice Chairman, The Cohen Group, Elisabeth Bumiller, New York Times, Barbara Slavin, USA Today, Christopher Isham, CBS News, Jeff Bartholet, Newsweek, Jerry Seib, The Wall Street Journal, Gen Barry McCaffrey, US Army (Ret) Gen John Keane, US Army (Ret), Dr. Gleaves Whitney, Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies, Dr. Norm Ornstein, American Enterprise Institute, Dr. Thomas Mann, The Brookings Institute, Dr. Lee Edwards, former Senator and Presidential candidate Gary Hart and others.
The conference ended with the news that the battle between Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had taken a nasty turn. Amid the din of all the negative campaigning and posturing, the public is keeping a close watch on how Senators Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain address and offer solution to these issues. It is my sincere hope that the candidates keep their focus on the hot button issues that face America today, many of which were discussed at the conference.

About The Author

""Brian Santhumayor of Nanthoor, Mangalore, has a Bachelors Degree in Engineering and MBA in Marketing and works as an Account Manager for an enterprise software firm in Manhattan. He actively writes articles on US Foreign Policy, UN and World Affairs. He volunteers by fundraising for numerous non-profit organizations including the American India foundation run by President Bill Clinton and has won numerous awards for his charitable efforts.

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Author: Brian Santhumayor- USA

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