Among the challenges facing whoever succeeds Hillary Clinton as secretary of state in the second-term Obama administration, any number of potential international crises could easily top the list. Indeed, there are already plenty of volcanoes prepared to erupt, from the continuing aftershocks of the Arab Spring to the unresolved territorial disputes in the South and East China seas. But in addition to these tests, the incoming secretary of state will face another, perhaps even bigger challenge: how to sell the worth and value of U.S. diplomacy to an increasingly skeptical Congress.
Case in point: Earlier this month, the U.S. Senate failed to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Disabled, a document modeled on the Americans with Disabilities Act, out of concerns that the treaty would infringe on U.S. sovereignty. The reasoning was an eerie echo of Beijing’s oft-repeated mantra of noninterference in defense of state sovereignty, a position that American politicians regularly condemn when it is invoked by Beijing to block stronger sanctions against Iran or humanitarian interventions against the regimes of Sudan and Syria. More importantly, the outcome of the Senate vote reflects the degree to which a growing number of American politicians and pundits are now primed to equate diplomatic engagement with appeasement and negotiation with surrender. By removing options from America’s diplomatic toolbox, this domestic political opposition threatens to limit the effectiveness of the Obama administration as it gears up for tackling a series of seemingly intractable foreign policy issues in its second term.
Moreover, a number of international issues were put “on hold” in recognition that little could be accomplished prior to the 2012 presidential elections in the United States and the Communist Party congress in Beijing that enshrined the ascendancy of incoming Chinese President Xi Jinping. As a result, there will be now be an expectation that, come 2013, the U.S. will have a full docket to clear. There is already a sense that, since China’s leadership transition in November, the new leaders in Beijing have begun to take more initiative in moving ahead on key questions. Other countries will be expecting the Obama administration to hit the ground running in January.