From Iran to the E.U.: America's Growing Foreign Policy Challenges

February 21, 2012
By Doug Gavel

These are challenging times for American foreign policy. Violent government crackdowns against pro-democracy protesters in the Middle East, new saber rattling in Tehran, and a fragile European Union under the weight of a widespread debt crisis underscore the difficulties facing U.S. policymakers and their allies. Here is a sampling of perspectives from several Harvard Kennedy School faculty members who are studying these developments and giving thought to how U.S. influence could affect the outcomes:

"It is a new day in the Middle East and a time of real testing for American policy. Our vast military strength will do us little good in this revolutionary Arab moment. We must rely on our diplomatic dexterity to maintain American influence and purpose in this vital region. Some critics call for a more aggressive US role, even as the head of an armed intervention force in Syria. But it is not smart to try to lead the parade, as we almost always did in the past. Instead of rushing forward into the fray, the administration is right to proceed carefully, patiently, and at the side of our Arab friends and Turkey as we seek to preserve American interests in this greatest test yet of President Obama’s Middle East diplomacy," writes Professor Nicholas Burns in The Boston Globe.

"The international environment that we are now swept up in is radically different than the one we are accustomed to dealing with. There are a number of forces loose in our globalized world which are hugely powerful, beyond anyone’s control, and converging at a fast rate, including: pandemics; terrorism; contagious economic fluctuations; climate change and resource scarcity; expanding ethnic and sectarian conflict; major turmoil threatening regional stability; and the rich-poor gap, which exacerbates everything else. At the same time, as a nation we are not well situated to deal with them," writes Jonathan Moore, associate, Harvard Kennedy School's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, on

"The debate in Israel over the Iranian nuclear threat is narrow but critical nonetheless. No one in Israel disputes that a nuclear Iran would pose a dire threat to its security and that Israel should go to great lengths to prevent this from happening. Some believe that Iran is an extremist but essentially rational actor, and can thus be deterred. Others believe the threat to be truly existential — that Iran's theocratic commitment to Israel's destruction may lead it to take unimaginable steps and risks — and thus that Israel must do everything it can to prevent that. Neither side can afford to be wrong," writes Charles Freilich, International Security Program, in The Los Angeles Times.

"The ultimate goal of the global community shouldn’t be blocking Iran’s nuclear program for the time being - it should be ending Iran’s urgent desire to create nuclear weapons. The tough new sanctions that cut into Iran’s revenues from oil exports may result in a popular uprising against Iran’s fractured leadership, but the more likely consequence is they will convince Iran’s leaders that they can no longer sustain being a global pariah," writes Juliette Kayyem, lecturer in public policy, in The Boston Globe.

"...for the industrial world as a whole, the priority for governments must be to engender confidence that the recovery will accelerate in the US and that the downturn in Europe will be limited. How best to do this remains an area of active debate," writes Professor Lawrence Summers in the Financial Times. "The best chance for economic recovery involves governments working directly to increase demand and to augment business confidence. At Davos and beyond, this should be the focus of economic debates."

Juliette Kayyem, lecturer in public policy

"The ultimate goal of the global community shouldn’t be blocking Iran’s nuclear program for the time being - it should be ending Iran’s urgent desire to create nuclear weapons." writes Kayyem.

Lawrence H. Summers, Charles W. Eliot University Professor of Harvard University Harvard Kennedy School

John F. Kennedy School of Government 79 John F. Kennedy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
617-495-1100 Get Directions Visit Contact Page