This week marks the formal start of Barack Obama’s second term as President of the United States. On Monday, he will make his public inaugural address in Washington (having been sworn in formally on Sunday, January 20th). The current agenda in the United States is dominated by the fiscal cliff and domestic gun control issues so Obama may have little time initially to kick off on foreign policy issues for a while. Now in his second term, however, he has more leverage to reshape foreign policy and focus on delivering on the promises he made four years ago.
The objectives he laid out in his speech on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament in April 2009 in Prague still frame U.S. policy in the area today and there remain opportunities for him to take action, even if support from Congress is limited. Obama should move quickly on U.S. commitments under the New START Treaty, and not wait for Moscow to make the first move on additional cuts and cooperation. The 2015 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference is creeping closer, and the Obama Administration needs to be stepping up its activities on the 2010 Action Plan and re-energize focus on U.S. disarmament commitments under this Treaty.
The President needs also to take the lead on negotiations between the E3+3 (P5+1—U.S., UK, Russia, China, France and Germany) and Iran, talks that have been stuck in diplomatic limbo for the past two years. A creative resolution needs to be found because opportunities for compromise are draining away, and tougher sanctions are not proving an effective tool for compellence.
A major factor influencing how the United States deals with Iran is Israel, where elections are happening this week on Tuesday. National security issues feature highly in Israeli elections, and Benjamin Netanyahu, who is set for re-election, has claimed that his main goal as Prime Minister was, and remains, preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. With 34 parties contesting the elections and a system reliant upon post-election coalition-building, there is no certainty to any predicted outcome, but many pundits are predicting a further shift in politics towards the right and a hardening approach towards Iran.
Also happening this week, the UN Conference on Disarmament (CD) reopens today for its first session of 2013. Hopes are not high for any short-term progress; the international forum for multilateral arms control and disarmament remains stuck with members unable to even agree on a program of work. A decision by President Obama to focus on nuclear disarmament could unblock the CD’s work program and see the beginning of negotiations over a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT). Closer to home he may also revive efforts to encourage the Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT)—originally negotiated in the CD in the 1990s.
These are the views of the author.