James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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What Foreign Policy Challenges Will the Next President Face?

by James M. Lindsay
November 2, 2012

A U.S. Army soldier high-fives with an Afghan boy during a patrol in eastern Afghanistan (Umit Bektas/ Courtesy Reuters). A U.S. Army soldier high-fives with an Afghan boy during a patrol in eastern Afghanistan (Umit Bektas/ Courtesy Reuters).


Former New York Times correspondent and current CFR.org consulting editor Bernard Gwertzman interviewed me the other day about the foreign policy challenges awaiting whoever wins next Tuesday’s election. The interview is now up on CFR.org.

Many of the issues the next president will face overseas are predictable: Afghanistan, China, Russia, Syria, climate change, and so forth. But as I told Bernie:

The one lesson for all presidents is that you can expect foreign policy to throw up challenges that you’ve never dreamed of on Inauguration Day. That’s what happened to George W. Bush with 9/11, and it happened with Barack Obama with the Arab Spring. So whoever takes the oath of office on January 20, 2013 is inevitably going to face some crisis overseas that he hadn’t anticipated.

It’s pretty easy to expand the list of foreign policy issues that presidents didn’t anticipate when they were on the campaign trail. Ronald Reagan wasn’t talking about Lebanon in 1980. George H.W. Bush wasn’t talking about the collapse of the Soviet Union or the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1988. Bill Clinton wasn’t talking about Haiti and Osama bin Laden in 1992.

That leads to a question: what are the foreign policy issues that we aren’t talking about today but that nonetheless will end up consuming a big chunk of the next president’s time? Feel free to offer your ideas in the comment boxes below.

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  • Posted by Joseph Nikolas Erobha

    I think that one of President Obama’s defining moments will be how he handles the situation in Iran. I think that entire fiasco is a waste of time. There is no credible evidence leading one to believe that Iran is actually developing a nuclear weapon. This paranoia has resulted in the terrible economic sanctions against the Iranian people, which is really doing nothing to halt Iran’s nuclear progress. In any case, Obama needs to reach out to the hearts of the Iranian people, who are struggling to build a democracy there. A military strike, which would be an unacceptable option, would dwarf any immediate hopes of democracy in Iran.

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