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Foreign Policy Talk On Campaign Trail Mostly Hot Air

Robert Siegel talks with Gideon Rose, editor of Foreign Affairs, for a broad-ranging conversation about what President Obama's foreign policy priorities are likely to be going into his second term.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In a presidential campaign that was not long on foreign policy debate, China was one point of contention. Mitt Romney had China on his day one agenda.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

MITT ROMNEY: And day one, I will label them a currency manipulator.

SIEGEL: Something that President Obama has declined to do, which raises this larger question: What's the foreign policy outlook now that we know the election's outcome? And joining us from New York to talk about that is Gideon Rose, the editor of Foreign Affairs. Welcome back to the program.

GIDEON ROSE: Good to be here.

SIEGEL: For starters, what do you foresee for U.S.-China policy?

ROSE: Well, the first thing about the foreign policy from now on is you should forget whatever little you heard during the election because the talk during the election about China and everything else really has nothing to do with what's going to happen now. China, as Russia, is a country with whom United States has a kind of frenemy relationship at this point. We need to cooperate with them on some things while contending with them on others. And the real challenge diplomatically, economically, strategically is how to keep the conflicts in check and low-key while developing the areas of cooperation to everybody's mutual benefit.

SIEGEL: And with China, those conflicts would be?

ROSE: Well, the biggest conflicts with China are going to come strategically in the South China Sea as China starts to essentially flex its military muscle and push its way outward in its own region leading to conflicts with others and with us as the guarantor of stability in the region. And then on the trade front where there are always going to be economic tensions in terms of dividing the gains from the trade that we have with each other, since we have a strong economic relationship, and who will manage to have policies that, in effect, benefit themselves even more than the other one.

SIEGEL: Let's move on to the Mideast. Yesterday, Tony Blair, who leads the so-called Quartet, the multinational group that's supposed to be working on an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, said this about that conflict in light of the election results.

TONY BLAIR: This issue here - and we're standing right here in Jerusalem now between the Israelis and the Palestinians - it remains of fundamental importance. And I know President Obama's deeply committed to it. I think his re-election gives us a chance now to re-energize it and renew our commitment to solving it.

SIEGEL: Gideon, what do you think? President Obama went after the Israeli-Palestinian dispute very heavily when he first came into office, didn't get very far. Is he going to take another stab at it?

ROSE: Not really. He came in with strong views, thinking that it could be solved and he knew how to do it. He got his fingers burned and then avoided the subject entirely the last couple of years. I think that's essentially what you're going to see for the next stretch of time. But the real problem there is not lack of American intervention. The real problem is neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis are really prepared to do what's necessary to make negotiations move forward. And they certainly aren't prepared to do it together. It's a little bit like the budget crisis in the U.S. except we have no fiscal cliff to push people forward. So it'll just kick - the can will be kicked down the road for a little bit until it blows up again in some way, at which point there'll be more crisis management and we'll go back to normal.

SIEGEL: And Iran?

ROSE: This is, in some ways, the most interesting case. Here, I would say there's a parallel between Obama and the general election and Romney on immigration and abortion and so forth in the primaries. Romney had to tack right during the primaries on things like immigration and then found it hard to come back towards the center in the general election. So in a very similar way, Obama had to tack right in a more hawkish direction on Iran during the general election. And the interesting question will be, if push comes to shove and the Iranians do move forward, will he actually live up to that pledge or will he do what George W. Bush did on North Korea, which is sort of conveniently forget that we actually were opposed to North Korea going nuclear and just rely back on deterrence and containment?

I think what they're going to try to do is keep the can being kicked down the road for as long as possible because no one really wants to face that choice. So as with the Israeli-Palestinian issue, expect more of the same without dramatic change one way or the other.

SIEGEL: Lot of cans being kicked down the road.

ROSE: You know, that's the good news and the bad news. The good news is the world environment really isn't as threat-filled as American commentators and military officials and so forth and politicians think. We're not in a giant security crisis. We're not in dramatic decline. Things aren't terrible. There isn't war looming. We're much better off than previous generations were in a whole variety of ways.

But the bad news is the problems that remain are sticky, thorny, difficult questions that require a lot of coordination and negotiation and don't have any easy answers. We've picked the low-hanging fruits, which are very good fruits of peace and stability and general economic coordination, but the ones left on the tree are hard to get at. And so, you know, muddling through is not the worst outcome, but it's probably what we can expect.

SIEGEL: Gideon Rose, the editor of Foreign Affairs. Gideon Rose, thanks a lot.

ROSE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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