John Rash
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It may have been a pocketbook election, but President Obama may spend more of his second term on international issues than the campaign reflected.

That prospect was evident right after the election, when Obama's diplomatic trip to Asia was tripped up by Mideast warfare. This was just days after a bombshell of a different sort -- the David Petraeus scandal. Now Obama needs to name a new leader at the CIA as well as at the departments of State and Defense.

And it was evident at two recent policy conferences I attended.

The first, the World Affairs Councils of America conference, took place in Washington, D.C. It began the day after the election with the theme of "U.S. National Security Policy: Six Top Issues for the President in 2013" -- the subject of this month's Great Decisions dialogue at the Minnesota International Center. Politicians, diplomats, journalists, academics (and Petraeus, who gave an off-the-record keynote address just two days before his scandal broke) engaged with leaders from world affairs councils.

Immediately afterward, a three-day seminar on international security and terrorism was held in Istanbul for eight North American and 11 global journalists. Organized by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the Stanley Foundation and the Istanbul Policy Center, it too brought together global experts, in a fitting setting. Turkey is a bridge between continents and faiths. Obama is likely to have to bridge differences as well -- between religions, continents and conflicts as a turbulent world calls for attention at the same time he has to deliver on domestic issues.

The two conferences covered some, but certainly not all, of the same issues. Here are the six from Washington, along with expert opinions from both conferences:

1. China

Obama's trip was part of the president's "pivot" to Asia, which reflects the rise of China. That's appropriate, said Stephen Hadley, national-security advisor to President George W. Bush. "China is trying to change on a rate and scale that the world has never seen before. ... Whatever global problem you are worried about, we can't solve those problems without China and the United States working together with the international community."

J. Stapleton Roy, former U.S. ambassador to China, agreed. Referring to China's once-in-a-decade leadership transition, he described the new generation of leaders as the first who came of age in China's "era of openness. ... We have to assume that this change in leadership will have a different outlook on the world," Roy said, adding, "In many ways our biggest foreign-policy challenge is managing our relationship with China."

2. U.S. education policy

One of the forces behind China's rise is its focus on education. That education is now considered a foreign-policy issue indicates the increasing link between brainpower and national power. Two countries -- Singapore and Finland -- were cited frequently as divergent yet successful models.

"In Singapore, every mother is a 'tiger mom,' " said Singapore's Ambassador, Ashok Kumar Mirpuri, referring to the demanding parenting style presented by author Amy Chua in a 2011 memoir. "There is a culture of respect for learning and hard work."

The American model, conversely, is broken, said Tony Wagner, innovation education fellow at Harvard. "The broader problem is not merely that our system is failing some kids. It is in fact failing to produce innovators and entrepreneurs, and needs reinventing, not reforming."

This matters not just in America, but globally, said Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education.

Gallup's results were "the most stunning finding. We sampled the whole Earth. Literally, everywhere in the world, everyone wants the same thing: a good job.

"Happiness, health, safety, family -- these used to be the things we all said we wanted across the world. We still want those things, but we see that as being achieved through a good job. ... Our math says there are 1.3 billion people in the world who want a good job and don't have one. Just think about that."

So add global joblessness as yet another asymmetric threat to global security.

3. policy

The Mideast uprisings are foreign-policy game-changers. So is the oil and natural gas that's been rising up in the Midwest.

"You think about the history of human conflict and the amount of times it's been waged over energy, and it's very clear the change we've already seen [in new energy wealth being tapped] has had a major national-security effect," said Daniel B. Poneman, deputy secretary of energy. "It has not left us complacent, but it's given us a very important measure of security and breathing space."

And it's not just North Dakota and the hydrofracking revolution that have evolved, said Daniel Yergin, the Pulitzer-Prize winning author on energy issues. With "what's happening in oil here, the growth in oil sands in Canada, and Brazilian offshore oil -- you will see a rebalancing of global oil in which the Western Hemisphere will eventually have little reason to import oil from the Eastern Hemisphere, which raises very interesting questions for everybody."

4. The Middle East

Energy issues are particularly important in the Mideast, a region in revolution well beyond the protracted problems between Israel and Palestine.

"It was inevitable, unavoidable, and actually a good thing that the people of the Arab world start taking control of their own future," said Hadley.

But what started as peaceful protest against repressive regimes has descended into a vicious civil war in Syria. This has Hadley, and many others, deeply worried.

"What you're beginning to see is a sectarian battleground that is starting to destabilize Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and maybe even Turkey," Hadley said. "That is bad news. A Middle East that descends into a sectarian war is a disaster for us all."

Disaster is what some worried the next year may bring in Iran, too.

"We have never intervened in Israel's wars before," said Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a grantmaking foundation focused on nuclear-weapons policy and conflict resolution. "But if Israel were to attack Iran, there would be tremendous pressure to come to Israel's aid. If we were to do that, it would start a major war in the Mideast that would make Iraq and Afghanistan look like a warmup act. This is why the joint chiefs do not want to do this. This is why we should not have any illusions that there is any kind of military solution to this problem -- that there is some magical strike that would happen over one or two days where Iran would come to its senses. A military strike on Iran would provoke [what] we seek to prevent: An Iranian dash to get a nuclear weapon as fast as they could, by whatever means they could."

Yet confrontation may be just where we're headed, said Dennis Ross, a former ambassador who is now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "There is no doubt we have succeeded in putting on them crippling sanctions -- every two months their currency is being devalued by half. ... But the bad news is their nuclear problem hasn't changed. We're heading into a year, 2013, which will be decisive one way or another."

Ross then recounted a tale that Zalmay Khalilzad, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations, repeated in Istanbul. Ross was dispatched to Saudi Arabia in the hopes of reassuring the monarchy about Iran's potential nuclear capability. After listening politely, the Saudi response was blunt. "If they get it, we get it," Ross was told.

And a nuclear Mideast may not be able to keep the peace through the Cold War construct of "mutually assured destruction."

"No one will believe that they can afford to strike second," Ross said. "So they are all on a hair-trigger, and that makes the prospect of a nuclear war very likely, which is a pretty horrendous prospect. That's the reason the president made a decision for prevention, not containment."

But don't completely count out compromise, said Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. "Iran's supreme leader isn't as much of an enigma wrapped in a conundrum wrapped within a riddle as you think. He is a theocratic leader, to be sure, but he is also a political leader, and I think his prime aim within Iran is regime protection."

5. Afghanistan/Pakistan

Some believe it's not Iran that will most test Obama, but Pakistan's vexing nexus between Afghanistan and India.

"I think this is the biggest problem that the administration faces over the next four years," said Vin Weber, a former congressman from Minnesota. "It's a problem that can't be solved: It has to be managed."

Khalilzad's assessment was diplomatic, but direct. "Pakistan has been a friend of the United States for a very long time, during the Soviet period, the war effort. They have taken risks for the United States, but at the same time Pakistan has behaved in very adversarial ways."

Ehsan ul-Haq, the former director-general of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (that country's version of the CIA) wants to make sure Americans don't forget this friendship. What's more, he defensively, indeed defiantly, told me that "there is no way the United States or the CIA could have captured Osama bin Laden without the assistance of the ISI. You get bits and pieces of information and you make a mosaic."

Nearly every other observer denies that Pakistan's assistance was meaningful. And later, Ul-Haq softened his rhetoric. "I'm embarrassed what happened. We did make very sincere efforts. This perception that we are complicit or incompetent I think is not fair, not correct. It only denies credit to Pakistan's enormous sacrifices in the 'war on terror.' ... The threat of terrorism is existential -- it is a life-and-death threat to Pakistan -- but so is the threat from India."

6. U.S. economic competitiveness

Many military, diplomatic and academic experts see our unsustainable fiscal situation as the biggest threat. So, in effect, the election's pocketbook issues encompass both domestic and foreign affairs.

"An overarching issue on top of all of them," said Hadley. "If you look at the national-security and foreign-policy challenges we face, the No. 1 challenge is getting our fiscal house in order. ... A healthy balance sheet undergirds everything we do internationally. It funds our military; it gives strength to our diplomacy. It allows us to be an attractive trading partner. It undergirds the power of the American idea, which is political democracy and free markets."

This threat is solvable, for the fiscal cliff and the mountain of debt. The upside? "People are saying we're one budget deal away from a real return to influence and standing," said Hadley.

But it will take sacrifice and, fittingly, diplomacy.

"What would be asked of the American people is so exponentially smaller than is being asked throughout the first world that's grappling with this. It's almost un-American we can't get it done," said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.

He ended by describing "Tea-Party types" waving the Constitution in front of him and asking him "haven't you read this?"

"Yes, I have read it," Warner said he replies. "It means you gotta compromise."

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John Rash is an editorial writer and columnist. The Star Tribune Editorial Board and the Minnesota International Center are partners in "Great Decisions," a monthly dialogue discussing foreign-policy topics. Want to join the conversation? Go to