Debating the Next President’s Foreign Policy

Robert C. O'Brien and Derek Shearer

Whoever wins the White House in November, Republican or Democrat, they will face a turbulent world. From the brutal civil war in Syria, the global terrorist threat from ISIS and a hostile government in Tehran to aggression from Moscow, an increasingly assertive China, a mounting loss of faith in global free trade and the world's largest number of refugees since the end of World War II, many challenges face the next US President. We asked two foreign policy experts, one Republican and one Democrat, to debate the best options for the incoming president. Robert O'Brien, a lawyer who was appointed by President George W Bush as a US representative to the UN and advised Mitt Romney, made the Republican case. Derek Shearer, a professor at Occidental College who was in the Commerce Department and then served as US Ambassador to Finland under President Clinton, made the case for the Democrats.

On Syria, O'Brien said that despite the vows after the Rwandan genocide in 1994 of "never again", it is, tragically, happening again in Syria, with more than 400,000 dead. He said the Obama administration bore much of the blame, having not reacted when the Assad government crossed the "red line" and thereby losing US credibility in the region. He said the US should adopt a much tougher approach in Syria, and certainly should not be allowing Russia to set the terms of the conflict. "Whoever invites Russia into a place where humanitarian aid is needed does not remember what happened when the Soviet Union entered Afghanistan."

Shearer pushed back on Syria, saying it cannot be seen as a rerun of a Cold War conflict, and said the only thing that the US can do now is create some safe zones where people can take refuge internally while we negotiate with the Russians to stop bombing civilian areas. But Syria, said Shearer, is a failed state, and the American people don't want the US to be a global policeman any more. "This is an international issue and we need to make use of our allies and partners." In a broader context, Shearer said that he is hopeful for a more bipartisan foreign policy after the next election - "because we haven't had one in a generation." He said he thought a President Clinton would be able to work with Republicans and bring them into the administration - "during the Obama administration, the Republican position was that anything he did was wrong - that isn't the way to a bipartisan platform."

Asked about the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, O'Brien said the next president should "tear it up on day one." He said it was the worst case of appeasement since the 1938 Munich agreement made by Neville Chamberlain with Adolf Hitler, and said it would be a grave mistake if President Obama thought this deal was going to help his legacy. Shearer attacked O'Brien vigorously, saying "what Robert has just described is a prescription for wider and endless war - this is the same mindset that let the Bush administration to invade Iraq." He said that Iran was on a path to develop nuclear weapons, and this agreement has at least stopped that for the time being. "We are not in a Cold War situation with the people of Iran - we are simply in disagreement with the government of Iran."

The debate moved to Russia, where O'Brien said that defense sequestration and "massive cuts to the US military" have made it more attractive to potential aggressors to invade a US ally. "All of a sudden, the Baltics look appealing to Putin." O'Brien said the US should move more troops to Europe to stand up to Russia and dissuade Putin from any further territorial advances.

Shearer was less intimidated by Russia, who he said "makes nothing that anyone else wants to buy." He painted a picture of a decaying country with bad social and medical services and internal strife and popular discontent. "Putin uses these aggressive moves to build up Russian nationalism" - as a way of distracting attention from his own domestic failings. "Putin in tactically smart, but strategically weak." In response, the US should be more sophisticated in the ways we use our economic power and diplomacy to contain the Russian leader.

O'Brien said that he will never forget when Mitt Romney, as the Republican candidate in 2012, "was mocked for calling Russia the most immediate threat to the US." Shearer agreed that the sequestration is a bad system and said we should indeed maintain our defense spending, but said "we still have the strongest military on the face of the earth," and said we need to be smarter in how we use that power.

In contrast to Putin, who may be good tactically but lacking in any strategic vision, China is almost exactly the opposite, with a long term strategic vision but short term it is often tactically clumsy. Shearer said that the US will continue being a Pacific power - "we've been in Asia for a very long time and we aren't leaving." On dealing with China he said that "China isn't our enemy, it is our competitor."

O'Brien said that the rise of China "is the biggest story of this century - and a lot of it is positive." But despite the economic growth, "the problem is that China is an expansionist power - they have taken over Tibet, they are claiming the entire South China Sea, and they have designs on Taiwan." O'Brien said China must understand that "America is going to stand by its allies", and Beijing cannot bully its democratic neighbors.

Finally on global trade and the Trans Pacific Partnership that was intended to link the US with 11 countries around the Pacific rim, Shearer said he thought it unlikely that it would pass before the end of the current administration, and should Clinton be elected she would probably revisit it later. But he observed that this presidential election is the first one ever where globalization played a central role - or more accurately, the opposition to globalization. "Trade has become a dirty word in this election," said Shearer - and that bodes trouble for whoever moves into the White House next January.