For all your talents and discipline, you have not demonstrated in your first term a great gift for negotiating. Your deep personal involvement in the nitty-gritty of budget talks with the Republicans or of climate-change diplomacy with the Chinese ended in damaging failure. Your successes — from passing health-care legislation to killing Osama bin Laden — have stemmed from your analytical and decision-making abilities, practiced unilaterally and from a distance.
You are an accomplished athlete as well as poker player. Those activities — and your determined, competitive nature — demand victory, not compromise with opponents who get something they need at the end of the day.
This leads to my (no doubt unwelcome) suggestion: Name experienced, able negotiators to head the State Department and Treasury and then let them do the essential lifting and hauling of bargaining. Reserve your prestige and power to be applied only at the final deal-making moment.
You should not be wading into details from the outset and making success a matter of all-or-nothing, highly personalized triumph. In his recent book, “The Price of Politics,” Bob Woodward portrays you doing just that in your talks with House Speaker John Boehner. Woodward’s reporting reminds me of the accounts I heard at the time from foreign and U.S. officials of your — shall we say, assertive — handling of the Chinese delegation at the Copenhagen climate-change conference three years ago, which also ended with dismal results.
Your personal diplomacy in the Middle East unrealistically raised and then abruptly dashed Arab hopes while antagonizing the Israelis — a not inconsiderable, if unintended, feat. On Iran, you have been far more successful at applying pressure than at getting serious negotiations started. Your administration’s one major success abroad, the New Start Treaty with Russia, has not proved to be a building block for better relations with Russia’s reflux president, Vladimir Putin.
But conditions are promising for a better second term, in part because of positions you have taken over the past four years. Your military rebalancing toward Asia gives you cards to play with China’s new leadership, which also needs U.S. cooperation in stabilizing the open global trade and financial systems that reward China so amply.
The rapid growth of domestic energy sources here at home means that in five years the United States will need the Middle East less while China will need that region’s oil exports — and political stability there — more. China’s working-age population, and thus its ability to support a larger safety net for senior citizens, begins to decline in about five years. Perhaps the most interesting financial trend is the projected 15-fold expansion this year — to $8 billion — in Chinese direct investment in the United States. Watch that space.
Europe also has financial problems that dictate more, not less, cooperation with the United States, including on Iran, Syria and the new governments coming out of the Arab season of turmoil. Iran’s economy is being badly damaged by sanctions you have put in place and by cyberwar, forcing the ayatollahs into a corner from which they have to deal or lash out. You may, however, have to meet Iranian defiance with increased military pressure before you can get a deal. As Abraham Sofaer of the Hoover Institution points out in his new book, “Taking on Iran,” Iran has in the past responded to U.S. firmness, including military action, with greater accommodation.
Elsewhere, Palestinians and Israelis are rediscovering anew, as they do at least once a decade, the bloody dead end they create by refusing to talk of peace. The missile defense deal you want with Putin is not in the cards, I understand from Moscow sources, because of the Russian leader’s refusal to compromise on that subject. But the continuing erosion of Russia’s economy and Putin’s political support could make him more amenable on other subjects, including arms control and energy.
A final thought: You could exert a moderating influence on your loyal opposition in Congress by nominating an experienced Republican to State or Treasury (as John F. Kennedy did by naming Douglas Dillon to the latter post). Bob Zoellick could do either job credibly, as could Bob Kimmitt, to name but two candidates. It would ease the path of the most urgent and important negotiations that you must now oversee but not conduct yourself — finding a way down from the fiscal cliff.