In a special live broadcast of the BBC’s The World Tonight, aired around the world on the BBC World Service, Robin Lustig asked how much change President-elect Obama will bring to American foreign policy. Jessica Tuchman Mathews, George Perkovich, Robert Kagan, and Ambassador James Collins debated what Obama should do – and what they think he will do – about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, relations with Russia and Iran, climate change, and a host of other issues.  

Change in U.S. Foreign Policy
Panelists agreed that President-elect Obama is certain to change the way America conducts its foreign policy, particularly when it comes to consulting with allies and prioritizing sustained diplomatic engagement, including with adversaries. Kagan, Perkovich, and Collins predicted continuity in the substance of Obama’s policy, noting that much depends on the behavior of other countries like Iran, Russia, and North Korea, whose interests have not changed.

Mathews suggested that the change in style will mirror a similar shift in substance, and that there are few issues on which she expects policy continuity. However, even on issues where change has been promised and seems likely, the imperatives of the global economic crisis make it harder than usual to predict the incoming administration’s policy choices.

Withdrawal from Iraq within sixteen months and renewed focus on the war in Afghanistan were key parts of Barack Obama’s successful campaign. Mathews said that Obama was likely to keep his campaign promise to start withdrawing troops as soon as he takes office, but that a resurgence of violence in Iraq could create domestic pressure on the administration to slow the withdrawal.  

Kagan predicted higher troop levels in Afghanistan irrespective of the progress of the Iraq withdrawal, but cautioned that Obama’s campaign rhetoric about winning the war in Afghanistan was exaggerated. He asserted that the administration faces a war with no military solution, complicated by the instability in neighboring Pakistan, which may draw time and resources away from Afghanistan.

Rebuilding relations with Russia, in decline since the August 2008 Caucasus conflict, will be another priority for the incoming administration. Collins, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, observed that Obama has a window of opportunity to “reset” U.S.-Russian relations. Sustained bilateral discussion of contentious issues, including the proposed missile defense system in Eastern Europe, may ease tension. NATO expansion remains a potential flash point, but consultation with European allies could lead to a more coherent, multilateral approach. Kagan and Perkovich noted, however, that Obama is unlikely to abandon the missile defense project, given the continued threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.

Climate Change
Climate change and renewable energy also played a prominent role in the presidential campaign. Though Obama supports investment in research and development and increased regulation, early signs indicate an unwillingness to use energy prices to reduce energy use in the United States, which Mathews asserted is the only realistic way to tackle climate change.