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A Sobering Foreign Policy Landscape

by Robert McMahon, Editor
September 2, 2008

Picking up where it left off last week in Denver, CFR today convened a panel on foreign policy on the sidelines of the GOP convention in Minneapolis that reinforced the difficulties facing a new administration. Here’s a brief look at the discussion on some of the vexing issues:

Russia. CFR President Richard N. Haass said Russia’s new assertiveness in its neighborhood could be one of the dominant strategic issues facing a new administration along with Iran and Pakistan. Panelist Kim Holmes, vice president of the Heritage Foundation’s institute for international studies, called Russia’s invasion of Georgia a “watershed event” that looks to be a “revival of some of Russia’s 19th-century views of its power and interests in the region on its borders.” Holmes advised in the short term approving NATO membership for Georgia and bolstering the government of President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Energy. CFR Senior Fellow Michael Levi called the notion of “energy independence” for the United States impossible. But he said the country can take a number of steps to lessen huge dependence on oil from unsavory resource-rich regimes. The collection of policy steps could include gas taxes and boosted support for research and development on alternative fuels and energy sources. Significant, says Levi, is a more “substantial role for government than we have been comfortable with.”

Immigration. CFR Senior Fellow Edward Alden said the aim is to preserve the economic boost traditionally provided by an open U.S. immigration system while shoring up the problems that have allowed millions of illegal immigrants into the country, posing a security and humanitarian problem. “It would be impossible to secure the U.S. border with Mexico without comprehensive immigration reform,” says Alden but added it is not a priority for Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), and will pose political difficulties for Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).

Trade and globalization. CFR Senior Fellow Benn Steil raised concern about the rise of enormous sovereign wealth funds internationally and the prospect of them being used for politically strategic purposes. “We’re seeing a form of cross-border nationalization of businesses,” he said. Steil added that another concern is the prospect of countries like China, which hold large reserves of the U.S. dollar, looking for ways to diversify those reserves with strong currencies like the euro, a development that could pose challenges to Washington currency policies down the road.

Meanwhile, the U.S. public’s appetite for free trade appears to be ebbing, which Americans tend to equate with wage stagnation, says Alden. “We need to look at ways of distributing gains of trade more widely. Until we do so, we’re going to lack consensus on trade policy.”

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