Comparisons between President-elect Barack Obama and President Franklin D. Roosevelt abound. Time put Obama on its cover wielding Roosevelt's trademark hat, pince-nez, and cigarette holder. "A lot of people around Barack are reading books about FDR's first hundred days," said one Obama adviser. Most of the attention has focused on Roosevelt's domestic policy, and the possibility of a New New Deal. But Roosevelt's foreign policy--and his focus on global architecture--offers equally important lessons for Obama. What is missing so far from today's talk of a progressive-era-in-the-making is a unifying agenda for American foreign policy that will leave the world safer and more prosperous when President-elect Obama leaves office. In his time, FDR led America through World War II and was a key architect of the new world order that followed. Before he died, Roosevelt conducted the critical diplomacy that established the United Nations, the world's first lasting institution of global governance.
Obama's national security team will need creative solutions to today's urgent foreign policy challenges, from Iraq and Afghanistan to North Korea, Iran, Congo, and Middle East peace. These complex issues will take a new caliber of diplomatic muster, and progress on any would be a triumph. But the times call for an ambitious, coherent international focus that goes beyond specific predicaments and ensures lasting change. How should America use this moment, with a progressive in the White House, a roiling worldwide crisis, and enormous power relative to our peers, to shape the world beyond our shores? The Obama administration should advance toward a goal that FDR championed--the strengthening of international institutions.
Creating effective architectures of global order requires three kinds of intervention--extensive improvement of existing institutions and rules, limited creation of new mechanisms, and reliable American engagement. The agenda is both complex and controversial. In terms of security, it includes the reform of voting rules and membership of the U.N. Security Council, the founding of a workable non-proliferation regime, belated American leadership on climate change, and a fortification of the World Health Organization. In terms of the global economy, we must develop new mechanisms to regulate international banking and finance, as well as update of the roles and governance of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. In terms of human rights and justice, the U.S. must join the U.N. Human Rights Council to help make it a serious forum for scrutiny and also engage in the International Criminal Court. As daunting as these steps may be, they are just the beginning.
Each of these actions will contribute to a more stable, secure world that benefits Americans.
However, the Democratic majority in Congress provides no guarantee that the Obama administration will be able to go forward with this entire agenda or even parts of it. The allergic reaction of many American policymakers to international rules and associations has deep historical roots. To create political space for these steps, the Obama administration must, as Roosevelt did, connect for the American people its foreign policy goals with its domestic agenda. The administration should begin in four discrete areas--the economy, health care, energy, and terrorism. Americans' well-being is directly at stake in all of these policy areas, and in each, the administration can leverage the domestic debate to draw the linkages between our welfare at home and architectures abroad.
An early opportunity will come in April, when the G-20 meets again in London to debate new international financial architectures. That the economic crisis is global in nature is obvious. That the solution is in significant part as well has been less so. These meetings will present a chance for President-elect Obama to highlight the role of existing organizations, particularly the IMF. While it needs reform and a new mandate, if the IMF weren't available to rescue Pakistan and a host of other countries, American taxpayers would be on the line for billions of additional dollars to prevent the unacceptable security risks that failed states could present. (Obama's people know well the potential crisis that the economic collapse of a weak nation would pose.)
In London, leaders will discuss creating new international mechanisms to regulate banks and other financial institutions. Here the connection to the domestic debate is clear--America can get its own regulatory house in order, but without complementary international rules, those domestic regulations cannot be effective. The administration can also use this opportunity to introduce the International Labor Organization to Americans, as this body is charged with working with countries to improve labor conditions--steps that will increase American gains from trade. Finally, the April meeting will provide a chance for the U.S. to acknowledge that the existing G-8 forum of rich, Western economies has outlived its usefulness and that including large, emerging economies like China and India, as the G-20 does, is necessary to make progress on global challenges.
When it comes to health care, President-elect Obama should emphasize to the role of the World Health Organization. He has already pointed out the connection to American competitiveness--that a domestic universal health care system that controls costs will remove an often-cited reason that companies relocate jobs to other countries. Yet it is also true that no matter how great the progress on improving the American public health system, only an effective WHO can help contain outbreaks of deadly pandemic disease before they hit our shores. It is the only body capable of collecting flu samples from the 193 countries that are its members. The administration should make the case to Congress and the citizenry for adequately funding the WHO and supporting its restructuring for greater efficacy.
A similar strategy makes sense on energy. The economic stimulus package could be the kickstart to a U.S. policy that stresses conservation and renewables. But, even with a massive transformation to a low-carbon economy in America, only the U.N.-sponsored international climate negotiations--to result in a agreement following a meeting in Copenhagen in late 2009--can ensure a reduction in carbon sufficient to avoid the worst effects of global warming. Here is where the formula for successful change--American engagement plus international architectures--is most apparent. While many lawmakers will surely resent the strictures of a new international agreement, administration statements should highlight the role of the U.N. as the honest broker and coordinator addressing a major global challenge.
The withdrawal of troops from Iraq, the ongoing battle in Afghanistan, and terrorist attacks like those in Mumbai will ensure counterterrorism continues as the administration's central foreign policy priority. The very nature of the terrorist threat makes the clear case for international cooperation. Yet most Americans are unaware of how dependent the U.S. is on other countries and institutions. In communicating about the terrorist threat, the administration should highlight bilateral cooperation we depend upon, but also essential architectures. The International Atomic Energy Association (though, it, too, could be more effective) plays a critical role in keeping nuclear material out of the hands of terrorists. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that sets up the current non-proliferation framework is in dire need of a rethink, but it has prevented nations from becoming nuclear. The little-known Paris-based Financial Action Task Force combats terrorist financing. In the campaign, President-elect Obama spoke often about the need for nation-building to address the terrorist threat. Here the U.N.'s record is enviable. A 2005 RAND study concluded that nation-building done through the U.N. was both significantly cheaper and more effective than American efforts, with a two-thirds success rate compared to America's one-half.
These four areas do not encompass all that the Obama administration should seek to do to empower architectures of international collaboration. But they are a place to begin making the general case for international regimes. Part of that case carries forward from FDR's time--to the extent that countries are economically interdependent and reliant on mutual security cooperation, their incentives for war diminish. Empowering international institutions will help bind today's emerging and re-emerging powers. They provide a way to leverage the resources and influence of new power centers like China, India, Russia, and Brazil and define with them their new roles as stewards of the international order that fostered their growth.
At the same time, international regimes provide a way for the U.S. to extend its power and values. Exactly because of the emergence of these new players, America's ability to enshrine rules conducive to American interests may be on the wane. Now is the time for America to engage fully in reforming international organizations and rules while our ability to influence them is at the apex. That said, America cannot dictate the end results, but instead walk the tightrope between ensuring that other pivotal powers have a say in the rules (they won't participate if they don't) and seeing its own preferences realized. If international institutions act like American hand puppets, they won't have the credibility to do their jobs. If the U.S. is not engaged, they will wither.
More importantly, the threats we face today, from the global financial crisis to terrorism and climate change, even more than 60 years ago, demand international coordination. Plus, by engaging in the renewal of international regimes, America will earn goodwill it needs for all its international aspirations. Working again toward the common good, in concrete ways, and through organizations that benefit all, will begin to repair America's image in the world. Finally, in today's economy, it's important to note that working through international institutions, when effective, can be a bargain. The U.N. is conducting some 17 peacekeeping operations with more than 70,000 troops for less annually than the cost of one month of U.S.-led operations in Iraq. At a time when the U.S. doesn't have an extra penny for anything, working through collaborative institutions will stretch our security dollars.
The U.S. should not lose sight of the fact that the American people have little sense of the alphabet soup of international regimes that help keep them safe and prosperous. With his rhetorical skills and international outlook, President-elect Obama is the right leader to advocate for them, invest in them, create them and in doing so, create his own legacy.
Nina Hachigian is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and co-author of The Next American Century: How The US Can Thrive As Other Powers Rise.
By Nina Hachigian