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Obama speech: Despite foreign policy successes, a need for the big view (+video)

In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, President Obama pointed to foreign policy successes, such as killing Osama bin Laden. But he and GOP nominee Mitt Romney still need to lay out a vision for a changing world. US influence depends on its competitiveness.

By Kurt Shillinger / September 7, 2012

President Obama stands on stage after addressing the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Sept. 6. Op-ed contributor Kurt Shillinger writes: 'Future US influence abroad will depend on how the next president begins to find a balance between debt and deficit reduction and the costs of modernizing infrastructure and educating the next generation of American engineers, scientists, and entrepreneurs.'

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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St. Louis

In making his case for a second term last night at the Democratic National Convention, President Obama delivered some of the most rousing lines of his acceptance speech during a short survey of national security threats and international trends meant to show that Republican nominee Mitt Romney is not yet ready for prime-time diplomacy.

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COMMENTARY: Harvard Kennedy School professor and former diplomat Nicholas Burns discusses US foreign policy in the Middle East as part of the American Conversation Essentials series.

That was smart politics, particularly on the eve of a report showing the economy added a paltry 96,000 jobs in August and more people quit looking for work. Amid a sputtering recovery, foreign policy is the president’s strongest card. But he missed a larger opportunity – one that Mr. Romney also failed to grasp a week earlier – to unite the disparate elements of foreign policy into a coherent overarching framework for American leadership. That’s needed at a time of both deepening crises and new openings in a rapidly changing world.

For the third time in two decades, American diplomacy is confronted with a need for adaptation. The end of the cold war 20 years ago unleashed waves of both democratization and sectarian strife across Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and Africa and thrust Washington, as the lone superpower, to the fore in a new and experimental era of international peacekeeping. A decade later, 9/11 prompted a second radical shift in US diplomatic strategy in the context of state failure and transnational terrorism.

This election coincides with a need to redefine foreign policy yet again in response to five key international trends: the Arab Spring, the potential collapse of the European common currency, the emergence of Africa as a robust trade partner, the shift in both influence and affluence from the Atlantic to the Pacific Rim, and climate change.

The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington ushered in a perplexing set of new security challenges – largely strategic – that have by no means been put to rest. But these more recent trends affect both immediate and long-term US economic prosperity and raise fundamental questions about domestic priorities.

Anticipating foreign policy under a second Obama administration is relatively straight-forward even without a broader stated doctrine. The main planks are very likely to include containing Iran and North Korea through a combination of stricter international penalties as well as incentives for abandoning their nuclear programs; encouraging ongoing democratic reforms and economic development in Africa, Myanmar (Burma), and the transitional states of the Middle East through trade and assistance; strengthening strategic and economic partnerships in Asia and elsewhere in the Pacific Rim; completing the withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014; and continuing to eradicate Al Qaeda and allied elements along both sides of the Pakistan border.

The riddles include how to end the civil war and nurture democratic transition in Syria (which shockingly got no mention at either convention), help stabilize the euro zone, and restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

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