US Foreign Policy

Presidential Inbox 2013

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The presidential inbox is full; President Obama’s second inaugural speech laid out an ambitious agenda for addressing an array of issues, both domestic and international. In this small volume, Stimson scholars propose some pragmatic and achievable actions that the president and his team can take to deal with some of the most important international challenges in his inbox. Our goal is to help advance international peace and security with realistic and realizable steps. We stress practicality over partisanship, flexibility over rigidity, and innovation over outdated approaches. We do not suggest that our list is complete; it is a selection of issues the president is certain to grapple with over the next four years. 

Stimson approaches issues of international security with some fundamental values about the changing nature of power and politics in a globalized world, about America’s capacity to help shape and solve many of the world’s greatest challenges, and about the importance of institutions and norms that promote global cooperation. Our work is not driven by ideology or by a rigid notion of America’s role in the world. It is attentive to the broad desire to move from over-reliance on military force and to expand civilian and diplomatic capacity for US engagement overseas. We seek to help redefine the security agenda in ways that reflect the interconnections among issues, and to avoid over-specialization in policy responses that are neither efficient nor effective. Stimson also prides itself on its capacity to build bridges between communities that care and are affected by the big security issues of the day.

Our ideas resonate with many of the topics laid out in the January 21 inaugural speech. The theme “faith in America’s future” does not suggest a turning away from international problems, but rather places a priority on restoring America’s economic vitality and progressive values as a part of America’s global leadership role. The president spoke of the enduring purpose of America: to improve its institutions and society, and to address the global threats to humankind, with unique qualities and capabilities. He acknowledged that the work of any one administration will be imperfect and incomplete, but said that the country can rise to the challenges of the day and come together with energy and purpose. Here are some of the ways Stimson’s work relates to these broad themes and purposes:

  • On environmental issues, we foster productive relationships between civil society groups and decision-makers in capitals and in regional organizations, bringing local knowledge and advocacy into centers of power. 
  • We also explore the way environmental threats are changing the security agenda in vulnerable countries, and how 20th century concepts of “security” have to adapt to a more complex mix of traditional and non-traditional security concerns by engaging a wide range of security actors. 
  • On nonproliferation, we engage countries of the global south to find synergies between their development goals and their international obligations to manage illicit flows of nuclear or other materials. 
  • Our regional work brings together experts and policymakers across conflict boundaries to share information and build trust, as a contribution to problem-solving on discrete issues such as water management, and as a conflict-prevention measure. 

In the nine essays in this volume, some cross-cutting insights emerge. In several cases, we urge more attention to diplomacy and to other forms of “soft” power as the United States engages societies and new leaders in the Middle East and Asia. 

We are not seized with the “rebalancing” to Asia because we see the geographic space from the Mediterranean to the Pacific as strategic continuum; we are deeply interested in issues that link the Middle East and Asia, and look at the Indian Ocean region as a bellwether for the complex security agenda of the future. Our regional experts focus as much on cross-border problems that require global solutions as on traditional state-to-state conflicts and cooperation. 

We see opportunities for bold approaches on space, on delegitimizing nuclear weapons, and on engaging Iran. The second term offers President Obama a chance to leave a strong legacy on issues that reflect the profound redistribution of power in the international system; American leadership on these hard issues will demonstrate the nation’s enduring distinct role in the world, and will engage and encourage rising powers to take more responsibility for international peace and security. 

We see the private sector and other non-government forces as playing increasingly important roles in managing and resolving security problems. Our work on maritime security and on various transnational threats engages diverse parts of the private sector and tries to facilitate constructive dialogue with government, to ensure productive collaboration and information sharing where possible. 

We also look for ways to streamline and create more efficiency in official responses to multifaceted challenges and crisis zones. Our work on resources for national security-diplomacy, development, and defense-looks at processes as well as financial issues, and addresses the long-term challenges of reforming and restructuring the work forces in key agencies for 21st century challenges.

Over the years, Stimson has developed a mantra of pragmatic steps for global security and we take pride in our capacity to understand in depth the mechanics of how policies are implemented, and when they need some repair. Our practical approach enables us to work well with technical experts in government to add value by identifying concrete ways policy implementation can be improved.

But we do not shy away from conceptual thinking and big ideas. We have a strong track record of generating and advancing innovative approaches to some of the most daunting topics, such as preventing nuclear war between India and Pakistan. We stick with the work through good times and bad. Sometimes think tanks have to demonstrate strategic patience; smart solutions are not always embraced quickly and it takes time for mindsets to change and good ideas to gain traction. 

Stimson scholars also seek to learn from our past work and apply the insights and lessons to ongoing security problems. In UN peacekeeping, for example, we have studied past peace operations to glean ways to improve effectiveness, from the design of operations to the training of military and civilian officials. 

Another example is recent brainstorming at Stimson with environmental experts on lessons from decades of arms control negotiations for the global effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and address the strategic challenge of climate change. While these two issues are very different, they have one thing in common: nuclear weapons and environmental degradation both have the power to cause immense suffering and to harm not just those alive today but future generations. Stimson cares deeply about achieving progress on both these “existential” issues, and sees opportunities for transfers of knowledge and insight across expert communities. 

Among the lessons from arms control that may be applicable to climate change are: 1) get past the visionary phase of grandiose but unrealistic goals, to focus on more achievable measures; 2) create separate forums for nations with distinctly different interests and capabilities (the emerging powers versus the developed nations); 3) involve political leaders, since technical experts cannot reach the finish line by themselves; and 4) seek opportunities for unilateral action that will make a difference.

Stimson has never hesitated to offer bold and effective ideas to advance international peace and security. The essays in this publication continue that proud tradition. We hope you will find this volume useful, and welcome your comments. 



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