Obama's foreign policy agenda is, to a large extent, going to be driven by events and other people's choices—not his own. He inherits a number of ugly problems in broad geographic areas—especially the enlarged Middle East—from Israel to Pakistan, and those issues are at least somewhat interrelated.

If he gets a stable ceasefire in Gaza, he won't have to concentrate on that right away, but if the fighting is still going on Jan. 20 that's automatically the top of his agenda. Or it could be a crisis between Ukraine and Russia. And you could easily have an extraordinarily serious crisis between India and Pakistan, for instance, or the situation between Afghanistan and Pakistan could deteriorate, and it's unlikely American troops can make a serious difference.

Then you have North Korea. I'm sure Obama would prefer not to deal with North Korea for six months or so, but whether he can do that is up to the North Koreans. He can't really afford to pick and choose among these crises: he has to try to get working on them all at the start.

The Bush administration has not made serious progress on any conflict except Iraq; ironically, Iraq is the most stable of them all, but I don't think it will stay stable much past the early summer. All the others are bubbling, and any of them could boil over at any time.

What's very important is that many nations will have tremendous relief at Obama's taking office and will want to get on, and stay on, his right side. He will have a lot of capital to draw on. Not unlimited capital, but something like getting some of our friends to take some of the prisoners out of Guantanamo, which heíll probably be able to do to some extent. Other nations would do things for Obama that they would never do for Bush.

Of course the problems we're talking about are intractable. No outsiders have made significant progress on the Arab-Israeli dispute. We have never actually been able to broker things—the only progress that has ever been made is between the two sides together. The India and Pakistan troubles are 60 years old. And in Iran, I know that the Shah, back in the 1970s, was seeking nuclear weapons. So these are all problems of long standing.

Obama knows it's important to set priorities, but of course how much of his time has to be devoted to the economy? And how much devoted to figuring out what to do when we close Guantanamo? Those are two big chunks of his time gone. A third will be trying to take back as many of the last-minute executive orders of the Bush administration as he can. Itís a long list that he's got, and he canít really focus on foreign policy as much as he might otherwise.

I think the Obama foreign policy will be somewhat different from what we've had before, but there are no grounds for expecting that the world will get much better or that many of these problems can be solved. They can be handled better than they were, but we're talking about handling them—not solving them.

 

Jervis is the Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of International Politics at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs.

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