WASHINGTON — America’s top foreign policy to-do’s in 2014 include preventing Iran from reaching the nuclear threshold, addressing the humanitarian disaster in Syria, containing an expansionist Russia, managing a rising China and reclaiming its own voice on human rights. Let’s take these one at a time.
• Preventing a nuclear Iran: The global agreement over Iran’s nuclear program will last six months, after which U.S., Iranian, and other negotiators hope to fashion a permanent deal. But, Tehran insists it has the right to enrich uranium and it hasn’t committed to closing its heavy-water reactor at Arak, which could enable it develop nuclear weapons through the alternative route of producing weapons-grade plutonium.
Without a true rollback of Iran’s nuclear program, rather than a slow-down under the interim deal, Tehran will be able to pass the nuclear threshold within months, if not weeks. So, while the interim deal spread optimistic cheer in Washington, Tehran, and Europe, the hardest work lies ahead.
• Addressing Syria’s humanitarian crisis: Former top State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter rightly predicts that Syria will be known as the “Rwanda of our time” — where the United States could have helped prevent a slaughter and looked away. Nearly three years after Bashar Assad met peaceful “Arab Spring” protests with horrific violence, more than 125,000 people are dead, al-Assad is starving nearly 300,000 others, more than two million people have left Syria, and millions more are displaced within the country.
As the civil war continues, Assad bolsters his position, and terrorist groups pour in, U.S. options grow more complicated. But, by doing nothing for the millions of innocent people who are caught in the cross-fire, America ignores both its highest ideals and threatens its long-term strategic interests.
• Containing Russia: President Barack Obama worked to “re-set” frosty U.S. relations with Moscow but got nothing in return. Now, with Vladimir Putin hoping to restore Russia’s former global glory, the US must see the challenge clearly and react accordingly. Putin is working to force his Eastern European neighbors into Russia’s hegemonic orbit, most visibly by pressuring Ukraine to abandon its effort at Western European integration and replace it with Russian economic and strategic collaboration. Washington should encourage Ukraine and other former Soviet territories to chart their own futures and support them, economically and diplomatically.
• Managing China: For decades, China has tested U.S. resolve to maintain its predominant role in the Pacific. Thus, Beijing’s recent announcement that it’s unilaterally claiming air space for itself over disputed islands is but the latest example. Unfortunately, Washington’s response to date has served merely to reassure Beijing and unsettle our Pacific allies.
Though Obama initially sent B-52s through the disputed airspace, top U.S. officials did not call for a Chinese rollback. The Federal Aviation Administration directed U.S. airlines to respect China’s new rules, and officials further fuzzed the matter by calling on all nations in the region to work out their differences. Rather than implicitly accept a new Beijing-driven reality, however, Washington needs to make clear that it will not respect any improper Chinese encroachment.
• Reclaiming its human rights voice: After eschewing human rights promotion for most of his presidency, Obama shifted course recently and put his administration publicly behind the hundreds of thousands of people who have braved freezing temperatures in Kiev to protest Ukraine’s autocratic and corrupt government. Now, he needs to stay the course.
Washington retains enormous power to pressure autocrats, support democrats, and shape events positively; it has done so to great effect over the years; and it should pursue such efforts more robustly.
Lawrence J. Haas is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.