As President Barack Obama prepares to give the State of the Union address, the world is looking for U.S. leadership on a variety of global threats, including climate change and nuclear proliferation. The president’s ability to work with other world leaders is crucial, particularly Russia. But so far, the two largest nuclear powers have been unable to agree on a successor to the expired 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) or to forge a shared approach to other security issues.
On Wednesday, January 27, Brookings President Strobe Talbott, former deputy secretary of state, and POLITICO senior editor discussed the road ahead on arms control, climate change and other transnational threats, in a live web chat.
The transcript of this chat follows.
12:29 Fred Barbash-Moderator: Welcome everyone to our weekly POLITICO-Brookings live chat. Our guest today is Strobe Talbott, president of Brookings and former Deputy Secretary of State.
Welcome Strobe. Let’s turn it over to readers and get started.
12:30 [Comment From Shawn] Can the President afford to focus on primarily on domestic issues in the State of the Union? What should the Congress and the viewers hear about foreign policy priorities?
12:31 Strobe Talbott: I think he not only “can afford” to focus on the domestic issues but he really has to give priority to that area, given the degree and extent of concern in the country over that aspect of his presidency so far.
12:32 [Comment From Eric] Obama’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize has been criticized as premature – on balance do you think it hurt him or helped him, at home and abroad?
12:33 Strobe Talbott: The president himself said that he was getting the prize prematurely–and that it was based more on hope for what he would accomplish than on what he’d already accomplished. Here we are, three months later, and he probably feels some frustration that his foreign policy agenda is in some ways hostage to his domestic political fortunes, which are clouded by the Massachusetts election and the intensified difficulties with health care.
12:34 [Comment From Daniel Lippman] Strobe-what do you think the prospects are for climate legislation in the US Congress currently? It seems that the US is doing much less than European countries and any bill that gets through will probably be very weak. Why is Europe more concerned about climate change than America?
12:35 Strobe Talbott: The prospects for a climate bill are dimmed by the general opposition to much of what the president is doing, but my sense is that the White House and other advocate of action on climate haven’t given up. It’s just that the degree of difficulty has gotten more severe.
12:35 [Comment From Jonathan] Will it take another successful attack to re-focus this Administration to the threats we continue to face globally?
12:36 Strobe Talbott: Terrorism remains a core concern of the US government in this administration as it was in the last one, although there are obviously difference in approach. The close call on Christmas Day with the Northwest flight brought that home to everyone, notably including the president, as he made very clear at the time.
12:36 [Comment From Greg Thielmann] I am particularly interested in hearing comments on how U.S. leadership can be exercised in the face of a hostile Senate — i.e., a Senate, which cannot ratify arms control agreements, nor pass meaningful climate change legislation.
12:37 Strobe Talbott: The president needs to take more ownership of those policies he considers to be his own priorities. He can’t “outsource” to powerful members of congress as much as he did in his first year.
12:38 [Comment From Brent] The American people are not interested in START. The fact is, most feel safer knowing we have a powerful defense program that would make anyone think twice about provoking us. You stated the “world” was looking for US leadership. Would you agree that the American people are less concerned with what the world thinks of the US and are much more concerned with the economy?
12:39 Strobe Talbott: I simply don’t agree with the comment from Brent (whose last name is clearly not Scowcroft). Informed Americans should, and do, care about strategic arms control — and should be glad that negotiations have resumed and that a new treaty is at hand — because that enterprise, which has been in suspension for a decade, is crucial to world peace.
12:39 [Comment From Jen] Some have taken to calling Obama’s approach to Afghanistan and the “war on terror” as “Bush lite.” What’s your view of how Obama compares to Bush on that front?
12:41 Strobe Talbott: In one respect, the current administration’s is similar to the previous administration’s: both presidents — Bush and Obama — believe that it’s essential for the US to provide the core of an international security presence in Afghanistan to resist the rise of al-Qaeda. The big difference, of course, is that back in late 2001 and early 2002, President Bush seemed to give higher priority to pivoting away from Afghanistan toward Iraq, and that contributed to a situation in which al Qaeda was able to reconstitute itself.
12:42 [Comment From jerry] Ahh! Finally we begin to reap the joys of mixed government. Now the President will have to govern instead of dream. He should be on the phone with Bill Clinton figuring out how to “press the reset button” with the American people.
12:43 Strobe Talbott: I wouldn’t put the point that way: I don’t think the president was just “dreaming” about a post-partisan era, but it’s certainly true that he’s going to have to apply a lot of lessons from last year in order to govern effectively this year.
12:43 [Comment From Bruce G.] How would you grade Hillary Clinton’s performance as Secretary of State, generally?
12:44 Strobe Talbott: High marks. Her diligence and determination have been evident from Day One, and most recently, her instincts on how to handle the catastrophe in Haiti served her, the Administration, and the people of Haiti well.
12:44 [Comment From Ron] Do you think relations with Russia have deteriorated, despite Obama’s decision on missile defense?
12:45 Strobe Talbott: I think the US-Russian relationship is in better shape than it was when President Obama came into office. There’s been some “resetting” on both sides. The president’s missile defense decision–which was wise on strategic grounds–helped; so did Russia’s assistance in putting pressure on Iran. While that situation remains troubling, the US and Russia are working better on it together than they did in the past.
12:46 [Comment From Suzie] I heard that Brookings is being blacklisted by Iran. What are your thoughts on that?
12:47 Strobe Talbott: The Iranian regime has made a point of denouncing a wide range of international NGOs, blaming external outfits for the discontent of the Iranian people.
12:47 [Comment From Lester] How much power does Medvedev really have? Is Putin still pulling the strings on Russian government?
12:48 Strobe Talbott: There’s no question that Vladimir Putin is the most powerful figure in Russia, and no one knows that better than President Medvedev. That said, my sense is that Medvedev has been given some room to exercise at least some of the powers that come with the presidency, particularly on internal and economic matters.
12:49 [Comment From Alejandra] How do you view the prospects for meaningful engagement with Iran going forward, given that it has rejected the plan for uranium exchange and in light of the discovery of the facility at Qom?
12:50 Strobe Talbott: “Engagement” was, of course, the motto and the approach from Washington at the beginning of the Adminstration. However, once the Iranians backed away from a deal their negotiators had agreed to in Geneva in early October, the Administration shifted toward a strategy the emphasizes sanctions — from carrots to sticks, in other words. The key now is a) whether China and Russia will support a tougher line, and b) whether that will work with Iran.
12:50 [Comment From Bob] What should be next for U.S.-Russian nuclear reductions once the post-START treaty is signed? And how should Presidents Obama and Medvedev cooperate to strengthen the nuclear non-proliferation regime?
12:53 Strobe Talbott: A follow-on negotiation with the Russians will look at lower levels of warheads but there are other issues to be addressed as well: tactical nuclear weapons and the issue of missile defenses. Obama and Medvedev can strengthen the Nonproliferation Treaty by continuing to lower the size of their two arsenals — which account for over 95 percent of the worlds nukes — since that will, in itself, be in compliance with the NPT and set a good example for other countries to rely less on nuclear weaponry.
12:53 [Comment From Joanna] Although President Obama has pushed the House to pass cap-and-trade legislation that would, for the first time, put a price on carbon emissions, the legislation has stalled in the Senate. Also, many would argue that the President took the bold step of going to Copenhagen, yet while the conference did produce an agreement, it was one that left many disappointed. Where does President Obama go from here?
12:56 Strobe Talbott: Joanna has identified one of the more troublesome dilemmas of our time: while the president of the US is powerful in many ways, he needs the support and cooperation of the Congress–and that must include bipartisan support–in order to address the problem of US carbon emissions, which are way ahead of all other countries, and to reassert American leadership internationally. A year of gridlock on this issue would a year wasted — and given the steep curve of emissions and, as a consequence, global warming, we don’t have any time to waste.
This chat ran shorter than usual due to technical difficulties.