Shadow Government

The 12-Step Plan: Suggestions for the Obama Administration to Recover Its Mojo

President Barack Obama's decision to cancel his trip to Asia makes vividly undeniable what has been clear in certain quarters for some time: The administration's foreign-policy agenda has lost its mojo. Watered-down Syria resolutions, overhyped Iranian diplomatic overtures, and an understandable preoccupation with the U.S. fiscal melodrama do not obscure a fundamental truth -- Obama is really struggling on foreign policy. This is obvious to anyone who has served in positions of responsibility in the foreign-policy arena, and the American public has noticed too. With the highest disapproval ratings on foreign policy in his entire tenure, it is time for Obama and his foreign-policy team to step back and reconsider what they are doing. He has plenty of time to turn things around, but accomplishing that feat will require some fresh strategic thinking.

The pundit community is mostly focused on how to jump-start a healthy domestic political process. But even if fixing the domestic political dysfunction is indeed "Job No. 1," there is plenty of work to be done on the foreign relations front as well. Moreover, Obama and his team must also plan for the undesirable contingency that the domestic political crisis could worsen before it improves. We may face months of continued paralysis at home, and the international challenges will not wait for the resolution of the domestic challenges. The president cannot afford to let his foreign-policy languish -- or worse, to try to obscure domestic setbacks with faux diplomatic "breakthroughs" that come at the cost of sacrificing long-term U.S. national security objectives.

What Obama needs is a rebooted foreign-policy agenda, one that identifies real opportunities and confronts real challenges, and that can be pursued even if the domestic political crisis lingers. As the "loyal opposition," we at FP's Shadow Government blog have not been shy to point out when and where we think the Obama administration's policies have been wanting. But we are patriots first and Republicans second, and for our nation's sake we fervently do want to see American foreign policy succeed. We are also all former policymakers, and we know firsthand the profound difficulties in crafting and implementing successful policies. Many of us served during the second term of George W. Bush's administration, so we understand what it feels like to work in a presidency facing declining approval ratings, widespread pundit criticism, violent turbulence in the Middle East, the persistent threat of terrorism, and agonizing challenges elsewhere in the world.

We also understand how hard it is to manage the daily deluge of the inbox, let alone find even a few minutes to think about new policy ideas. With that in mind, our contributors have each taken up the question "What one specific new policy proposal can I suggest to the Obama administration that could be realistically achieved in the next three years?" So, for our friends and readers in the Obama administration -- and we know there are at least a few of you -- we hope you will find the following helpful.

The 12-Step Plan:

Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

What Would Foreign Policy Look Like Under a Different Two-Party System?

Back in the fall of 2007, I was asked to speak at a joint academic-intelligence community conference looking at long-range trends, specifically ones that might come to fruition by 2025. I don't remember all my predictions, but I remember my last one: that there was a reasonable chance that the two-party system in the United States would not be dominated in 2025 by both the Democratic and Republican parties. I thought of that prediction when the political dysfunction in Washington culminated in the current government shutdown (with a looming debt-ceiling crisis in the wings).

There are good structural reasons the U.S. electoral system tends to only have two national parties, so it is unlikely that the United States would evolve toward an enduring multiparty system like those prevalent in Europe. But dominance by these particular two parties is not structurally determined. Both of these parties emerged out of the failures of previously dominant ones, and we may be witnessing the painful death of one or both of the existing parties.

Indeed, it is conventional wisdom that the Republicans are the ones dying and that the Tea Party revolt from within the Republican ranks is hastening the demise. That seems to be the calculation of President Barack Obama and his political advisors, who clearly think they will emerge from the shutdown crisis with a less-damaged brand than Republicans. I have even heard some Tea Partiers talk like that themselves, in a "we may have to destroy the Republican Party to save it" kind of way.

But the Democrats have their own deep divisions. If the shutdown were not dominating the news, the headlines might focus on unions' concerns about the impact of Obamacare on their core interests. And nowhere are those divisions more evident than in foreign policy. Obama's efforts on Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, drone strikes, and so on all divide Democrats at least as much as they divide Republicans.

Right now Republicans look to be more fragile, but the Democrats only look strong by comparison. Combined, the prospects that both of these parties will be around to dominate the political scene in 2025 look dimmer today than they did in 2007 when I speculated one of them would pass.

This has obvious implications for domestic policy, but I think it matters greatly for foreign policy too. In fact, it is hard to identify a single, plausible, domestic political development that would have greater unpredictable impact on America's global role. It is striking that for the past century -- i.e., for the entirety of the "American century" in which the U.S. role has been pivotal for global affairs -- American politics has been dominated by Republicans and Democrats. We don't know what a credible third party might look like in the superpower era or what that new party might advance as its requisite foreign-policy platform.

It seems clear, however, that the necessary catalyst for the emergence of such a third party is manifest failure by one or both of the existing parties. It is premature to publish the obit for the existing parties, but the political crisis in Washington sure seems to be hastening that day.

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images