President Obama begins his second term at a volatile juncture in history and world affairs. However, this time of uncertainty and instability presents the president with a range of opportunities: By making a series of “big bets,” Obama can shape the emerging global order in transformational ways and define his own historic legacy. However, he will need to avoid a number of “black swans”—low-probability but high-impact events—that could derail his intended agenda and come to dominate his second term.
Here is the list of top-10 picks from our foreign-policy experts:
1. Turning Tehran
The persistent and intractable challenge of Iran—the world’s most dangerous state—presents the Obama administration with an epic threat and a historic opportunity. Iran’s negative influence, through its nuclear program and support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, has helped inflame sectarian tensions and undermined prospects for peace in a region already beset by upheaval.
The president should seek a deal with Iran to resolve the nuclear crisis. Such an initiative would include pursuing a quick stop-and-swap deal to end Iran’s 20 percent enrichment, pressing for an intensified schedule of negotiations with Iran, and developing a comprehensive proposal of sequenced Iranian nuclear concessions and sanctions relief. A meaningful nuclear deal with Iran would represent a major step forward for nuclear nonproliferation.
2. An Obama Doctrine on New Rules of War
In its first term, the Obama administration worked hard to roll back one of the signature weapons of the 20th century: the nuclear bomb. Yet over the last four years, the United States also broke new ground in the use of new, revolutionary military technologies that may well become signature weapons of the 21st century. These encompass both physical systems, like unmanned aircraft (“drones”) and a new class of virtual weaponry, malware that can conduct a cyberattack with real-world consequences.
Obama now has an opportunity to establish new international norms for these new weapons of war by enunciating how the United States will deploy and use them. He will need to address accountability, the applicability of existing rules of war, limitations on development or use, future scenarios, and the prospects for international cooperation. The effort to create a doctrine should draw upon past lessons from comparable situations such as Cold War nuclear doctrine.
3. Energy and Climate: From Black to Gold to Green
The hydrocarbon bonanza in the United States gives Obama a significant opportunity. The administration can help strengthen the American economic and geopolitical position by taking a leadership role in the battle to address climate change.
By adopting policies that encourage the development and export of American oil, coal, and gas, the administration can take advantage of the rising demand in developing and emerging economies around the world.
As a condition of greater exploration, production, and trade, the U.S. government should impose a modest but meaningful carbon-based tax on production, with revenue allocated specifically to the development of climate-change-fighting technologies such as carbon capture and sequestration.
4. The Road Away From Damascus
Syria is standing on a precipice. The regime will likely fall, but the prospect now is one of a failed state that produces a toxic culture of extremism and lawlessness. If the United States does not take on a more active leadership role, the trend toward warlordism and sectarian fragmentation will likely prove inexorable, generating spillover that could impact the security interests of neighboring U.S. allies Turkey, Jordan, and Israel.
The Obama administration should change its approach to one of active intervention to ensure a more stable transition to a post-Assad order. Specifically, the administration should provide assistance to the Syrian opposition in the form of weapons, forge a genuine national dialogue that includes Alawites and Christians, and create an international steering group to oversee and lend support to the transitional process, including the creation of an international stabilization force to protect Syrian civilians. The president should engage directly with President Vladimir Putin to get the Russians onboard.
5. Free-Trade Game Changer
Protectionism is on the rise everywhere. The Doha round is essentially dead. But the United States and Europe need to stimulate their economies without resorting to increased spending. One way forward is for the United States to promote dramatic new free-trade agreements.
Achieving both a transpacific partnership and a transatlantic free-trade agreement is the most effective way to reclaim U.S. economic leadership and make progress toward the Obama administration’s promised goal of doubling U.S. exports. Signing these agreements would also have deep strategic implications, reaffirming liberal norms and a leading U.S. role in setting the global rules of the road.
1.China in Revolution and War
There are many serious problems in China that could trigger a major crisis, including slowing economic growth, widespread social unrest, vicious elite infighting, rampant official corruption, heightened Chinese nationalism generated by territorial disputes, and even the potential for military conflict with neighboring countries. Such a crisis could take the form of a domestic revolution or foreign war.
The administration should also oppose the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union.
Either would be very disruptive, severely impairing global economic development and regional security in the Asia-Pacific region. A combination of the two would constitute one of the most complicated foreign-policy problems of the president’s second term.
The best way to prepare in advance is for the White House to cultivate a deeper relationship with Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his new leadership team, to reach out directly to the Chinese people, and to use U.S. influence to dissuade any country in Asia from resorting to force to settle disputes.
2. Revolution in Riyadh
Saudi Arabia is the world’s last absolute monarchy and the world's largest oil supplier. The Arab awakening confronts the royal family with its most severe test. Demographic challenges, high underemployment, and restrictions on freedom make it even more vulnerable.
The overthrow of America’s oldest ally in the Middle East would be a severe setback to the U.S. position in the region and provide a dramatic strategic windfall for Iran. The small oil-rich monarchies of the Gulf and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan would be endangered.
The president should try to reestablish trust with the king and urge him to move more rapidly on his political-reform agenda while recognizing that this is likely to have limited results. The administration should also ensure the best possible intelligence is available to predict if a crisis coming, put in place measures to limit impacts on the global economy, be ready to support neighboring kingdoms and sheikhdoms, and then try to ride out the storm.
3. Euro-Zoned Out
The euro crisis has been ongoing for three years now, and the EU is beginning to get its act together to build a sustainable monetary union. But the underlying causes of the crisis have not yet been addressed. The politics are diverging from the solution as populations on the periphery suffer from austerity measures and see no end in sight, while those in the core feel exploited.
As long as a more comprehensive solution remains elusive, the risks of failure will continue to loom large. If failure occurs, it could be devastating to the U.S. economy, surpassing the crisis of 2008. A related black swan is the fragmentation of the European Union, which would also damage U.S. strategic interests. The United States should work closely with EU leaders to prevent new dangerous design flaws in reforms to the euro zone. The administration should also oppose the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union.
4. The End of the Palestinian Authority
The collapse of the Palestinian Authority would represent the final nail in the coffin of the Oslo peace process that began in 1993. The Palestinian Authority’s demise would eliminate the single most tangible expression of efforts to achieve a two-state solution—all but destroying chances for a peaceful settlement between Israelis and Palestinians for the foreseeable future.
Over the immediate term, the collapse could lead to large-scale Palestinian civil unrest and perhaps even a total breakdown in law and order in the West Bank, increasing the chances of a violent Palestinian uprising against Israel, a full Israeli reoccupation of the West Bank, or a takeover by extremist elements.
The immediate priority is to prevent the financial collapse of the Palestinian Authority, then an effort should be made to convince Israel to lift its restrictions that hamper economic growth, and make a renewed push to promote political progress through negotiations.
5. The Big Thaw
Global warming is happening faster than scientists predicted. Temperatures are rising, icecaps and glaciers are melting, and extreme weather is more frequent and intense. If these trends continue, the consequences will be monumental and far-reaching over time. If the warming accelerates more dramatically, and the polar ice melts even faster, the results could be catastrophic.
A significant rise in sea levels throughout the world would have particularly devastating impacts on the concentrated populations living in low-lying coastal areas, affecting the local economy, politics, community life, and security. But perhaps the biggest impact will be climate-induced migration and displacement, placing strains on infrastructure and pressure on governments to deliver services.
The United States can help mitigate these risks by giving climate change a higher priority in international and domestic policymaking—promoting new multilateral initiatives and increasing mitigation and adaptation.
This article is adapted from Big Bets and Black Swans: A Presidential Briefing Book. For the complete Big Bets and Black Swans: A Presidential Briefing Book by the scholars at Foreign Policy at Brookings, go to brookings.edu/bigbetsblackswans.
To view a motion graphic video on the Big Bets and Black Swans, go to youtube.