The List

Unclenched Fists

When it comes to foreign policy, these are the six most significant inaugural addresses in U.S. history.

The presidential kick-off speech holds a special place in the American imagination. From Abraham Lincoln's second, dramatized in this year's Steven Spielberg movie starring Daniel Day-Lewis, to Franklin D. Roosevelt's first, immortalized by the line, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," the inaugural address has achieved mythical status in America. (Whole books have been written about John F. Kennedy's 1961 address -- a speech that was exactly 1,363 words long.) Interestingly, however, very few of the 56 inaugural speeches delivered to date have devoted much time to foreign policy.

Instead, most presidents have used their inaugurals to set out their domestic policy agendas. George Washington in 1789 warned of "party animosities" and extolled the virtues of "rectitude" and "patriotism"; FDR in 1933 called for wartime powers ... to fix the failing economy; and Ronald Reagan in 1981 laid out his vision for limited government. "[G]overnment is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem," he declared in one of the speech's most memorable lines.

In his second inaugural, Barack Obama will almost certainly follow their lead. Economic recovery and the need to end partisan bickering are likely themes for his speech, as is the scourge of gun violence, which will probably get a line or two. But on the off chance that Obama decides to make a major foray into foreign policy, here's a list of six inaugural addresses that have done so in the past. The first he'll probably remember, since he delivered it four years ago.


After an election that was fought in large part over America's role in the world, Obama used the occasion of his first inaugural to signal a new beginning in dealings with friends and foes alike. In an explicit rebuke of George W. Bush's era of unilateralism, Obama reminded Americans that past generations defeated fascism and communism "not just with missiles and tanks" but with "sturdy alliances." He also reached out to the Muslim world, where anger over the Iraq war still simmered and an aging cast of dictators had grown weary of the Bush administration's demands for political reform. "To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward based on mutual interest and mutual respect," Obama said.

But the most memorable line of the address was directed implicitly at Iran -- ringleader of Bush's "Axis of Evil" -- which remained hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons while repressing its own people.  "To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history," he said, "but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist." The Iranians were evidently unimpressed. The next day, a spokesman for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei fired back that "Obama's is the hand of Satan in a new sleeve." Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for his part, opined that "the Great Satan now has a black face."

Obama's conciliatory tone played better among American liberals, who lauded the president for "breaking with the past," but it gave conservatives plenty of political ammunition when his subsequent overtures were rebuffed.


Four years after he vowed to build a more perfect democracy at home in his first inaugural address, Bush took his ambitious message global, delivering a lengthy paean to freedom that put dictators everywhere on notice that they were now in the crosshairs. "Today, America speaks anew to the peoples of the world. All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: The United States will not ignore your oppression or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you."

Delivered just as Iraqis were preparing to elect a transitional government, Bush's speech made clear that democracy promotion would be the central pillar of American foreign policy in his second term. The "forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East" -- laid out in a 2003 speech at London's Whitehall Palace -- had morphed into a global project aimed at engineering a democratic peace. In Bush's words:

"The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.... So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."

The speech received mixed reviews even among conservatives. Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan wrote that it left her "yearning for ... nuance," while liberal responses ran the gamut from "startling" to "the most un-American speech I've ever heard."


Just five days after he ordered the end of a massive bombing campaign in Hanoi and Haiphong, and seven days before he actually signed the Paris Peace Accords, Richard Nixon took the podium on the Capitol's East Portico and delivered a rousing encomium to peace. "As we meet here today, we stand on the threshold of a new era of peace in the world," he crowed. "The central question before us is: How shall we use that peace?"

"Let us resolve that this era we are about to enter will not be what other postwar periods have so often been: a time of retreat and isolation that leads to stagnation at home and invites new danger abroad.... This past year saw far-reaching results from our new policies for peace. By continuing to revitalize our traditional friendships, and by our missions to Peking and to Moscow, we were able to establish the base for a new and more durable pattern of relationships among the nations of the world. Because of America's bold initiatives, 1972 will be long remembered as the year of the greatest progress since the end of World War II toward a lasting peace in the world."

Many saw the speech as deeply cynical, given that the president arguably could have ended the Vietnam war four years earlier on similar terms, and the following day's New York Times noted Nixon's glaring omission of the words "Vietnam" and "Indochina." But the California Quaker evidently saw himself as a peacemaker -- and branded himself as such when he re-entered public life in the post-Watergate era. His tombstone in Yorba Linda, Calif. is inscribed with the following epitaph: "The greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker."


One of the most famous addresses of all time -- up there with FDR's 1933 "nothing to fear" speech and Lincoln's 1865 "malice toward none" masterpiece -- Kennedy's only inaugural address is remembered primarily as a call to service. ("Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country," is easily the most famous line.) But the speech's deeper significance lies in the fact that it challenged the prevailing run-for-the-bunker Cold War mentality, conveying both American resolve and willingness to negotiate.

Parts of the speech are hawkish, like the section that declares, "We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty." But other moments are pragmatic, even conciliatory. "Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate," he said, suggesting further that both the Soviets and the United States "formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms." Kennedy also called the United Nations "our last best hope," vowed to alleviate global poverty, and affirmed his commitment to U.S. allies, remarking that "United, there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided, there is little we can do."

The following day, the New York Times lauded Kennedy's theme of "conciliation without weakness," noting that the speech "entirely lacked the polemical tone and defensive outlook that have characterized many American state papers in recent years."


With the Axis tearing Europe apart and threatening to dominate the rest of the free world, FDR delivered a powerful statement for the preservation of democracy in his third inaugural address. The United States was not yet at war -- Pearl Harbor would not be attacked for 11 more months --  but it was in the midst of a global crisis. So great was the sense of peril that Roosevelt felt the need to declare at one point, "No, democracy is not dying."

"The democratic aspiration is no mere recent phase in human history. It is human history," he said, before tracing the lineage of the American "spirit" from the Magna Carta to the Mayflower Compact and all the way to the Gettysburg Address. The existential threat of war did not yet demand American intervention, FDR implied, but the United States must not revert to the kind of isolationism that people like Charles Lindbergh were advocating. "In the face of great perils never before encountered, our strong purpose is to protect and to perpetuate the integrity of democracy," he said. "We do not retreat. We are not content to stand still. As Americans, we go forward, in the service of our country, by the will of God."

Perhaps because of its abstract and philosophical tone, the address failed to rouse the crowd gathered on that cold January morning in 1941, and FDR told his advisors afterwards that he was disappointed with the speech. Prior to the inauguration, FDR had delivered two major addresses: a Dec. 29 fireside chat in which he declared that "we must be the great arsenal of democracy" and his famous "Four Freedoms" speech on Jan. 6. As a result, he felt the country was fed up with long pronouncements from its leader and settled on a shorter address. But the speech was of a piece with the campaign waged by FDR in late 1940 and early 1941 to pass the Lend-Lease Act and to place America more firmly on the side of Britain in the unfolding war. In that effort, he faced vehement opposition from isolationists in Congress. By casting the war as a fight for democracy, FDR boldly dared his political opponents to undermine an effort to rescue that dearly held American ideal.


Remembered primarily as a call for unity in the aftermath of a divisive political campaign, Jefferson's first inaugural address was mostly concerned with politics at home. He emphasized the importance of majority rule, minority rights, and the peaceful transfer of power -- reminding Americans that "every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle."

But Jefferson also held forth on the question of America's role in the world. He called for "peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations," but "entangling alliances with none." The latter clause, quoted endlessly by isolationists, has been taken to mean that the United States should eschew international commitments and focus only on its own affairs. But Jefferson wasn't interested in cutting America off from the world -- his commitment to global commerce betrayed his internationalism. Still, he did not lament the fact that the United States was "kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe."

Jefferson's election in 1800 -- sometimes referred to as the Revolution of 1800 -- marked the arrival of the United States as a democratic power and the first instance of a peaceful transition of power from one party to another. But if Jefferson's embrace of commerce was supposed to have signaled the country's arrival as an economic power, the condition of the capital during his inauguration revealed his country's youth. Legislators huddled in the corridors of the Capitol were frequently disturbed by the sound of gunfire from quail hunters a few hundred yards from the still-unfinished building. The inauguration, in fact, may have been held in the Senate chamber because it was one of the few public spaces in the capital that had been completed by 1801. And while Jefferson's arrival at his inauguration without the grand retinue on display at Washington and Adams's inaugurations has become part of the democratic mythology surrounding the third president, his simple entrance could just as easily have been a function of the fact that Pennsylvania Avenue was still littered with tree stumps at the time.


The List

Over the Horizon

Five unlikely but extremely destabilizing global crises that Obama must prepare for now.

U.S. President Barack Obama begins his second term at a critical moment in world affairs -- al Qaeda raising its head in North Africa, President Bashar al-Assad possibly preparing to use chemical weapons in Syria, Iran moving toward the nuclear weapons threshold, and tensions rising in Asia. An unstable world promises to present the president with many challenges in the next four years, and his advisors are already grappling with how to confront them.

Some looming challenges -- like the America's debt or China's rise -- have been the focus of a good deal of attention. However, low-probability but high-impact "black-swan" events could also define Obama's second term, diverting the president from his intended foreign-policy agenda. These events would be so catastrophic that he needs to take steps now to minimize the risk that they might occur.

Here are some of the black swans that could upend the Obama administration's agenda over the next four years:

Confrontation over Korea

There is a serious risk of an acute U.S.-China confrontation over -- or even a direct military conflict on -- the Korean Peninsula. The North Korean regime is facing an existential internal crisis. Under such conditions, it is prone to lashing out at neighboring states or engaging in other forms of risky behavior. Although it seems strong, it is also dependent on China's support and vulnerable to quick-onset instability. If Washington and Beijing fail to coordinate and communicate before a collapse begins, we could face the possibility of a U.S.-China confrontation of almost unimaginable consequences.

The Obama administration has sought to sharpen Pyongyang's choices, pushing it to recognize that it can't have nuclear weapons and genuine national strength. To reduce the risks of a confrontation with China over the possibility of a North Korean collapse, the administration should pursue four objectives with Beijing. The countries should disclose information on the location, operation, and capabilities of each other's military forces that could soon intervene in North Korea; share intelligence on the known or suspected location of North Korea's weapons-of-mass-destruction assets; initiate planning for the evacuation of foreign citizens in South Korea; and discuss possible measures to avoid an acute humanitarian disaster among North Korean citizens seeking to flee.


Chaos in Kabul

As the 2014 transition to a radically diminished U.S. presence in Afghanistan approaches, the United States will leave behind a perilous security situation, a political system few Afghans see as legitimate, and a likely severe economic downturn. Obama has not yet specified how many U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan after the transition, but he has made it very clear -- including during the recent visit by President Hamid Karzai -- that troop levels will be in the low thousands and that their functions will be restricted to very narrow counterterrorism and training missions. He also conditioned any continuing U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan on the signing of a status of forces agreement that grants immunity to U.S. soldiers, a condition that the Afghan government may find difficult to swallow. 

Although a massive security deterioration, including the possibility of civil war, is far from inevitable, it is a real possibility. Such a meltdown would leave the administration with few policy options, severely compromising America's ability to protect its interests in the region.

A major security collapse in Afghanistan would, in all likelihood, initially resemble the early 1990s pattern of infighting between ethnic groups and local power brokers, rather than the late 1990s, when a Taliban line of control moved steadily north. The extent of violence and fragmentation would depend on whether the Afghan army and police force splintered. 

Even then, the Afghan government may have enough strength to hold Kabul, major cities, and other parts of Afghanistan. The Taliban would easily control parts of the south and east, while fighting could break out elsewhere among members of a resurrected Northern Alliance or among Durrani Pashtun power brokers. But ethnic fighting could eventually explode even on the streets of Kabul, where Pashtuns harbor resentments about the post-2001 influx of Tajiks that changed land distribution in the capital. In the event of massive instability, a military coup is also a possibility, particularly if the 2014 presidential election is seen as illegitimate.

An unstable Afghanistan will be like an ulcer bleeding into Pakistan. It will further distract Pakistan's leaders from tackling their country's internal security, economic, energy, and social crises, and stemming the radicalization of Pakistani society. These trends, needless to say, will adversely affect U.S. interests. 

Even though U.S. leverage in Afghanistan diminishes daily, decisions made in Washington still critically affect Afghanistan's future. The Obama administration can mitigate risks by withdrawing at a judicious pace -- one that doesn't put an unbearable strain on Afghanistan's security capacity. It should also continue to provide security assistance, define negotiations with the Taliban and Afghan government as a broader reconciliation process, and encourage good governance.

Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images

Camp David Collapse

Since the collapse of Hosni Mubarak's regime in Egypt, the United States has been resolutely focused on maintaining the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, which serves as a cornerstone of stability for the region, an anchor for U.S. influence in the Middle East, and a building block for efforts at Arab-Israeli coexistence. Happily, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy has signaled his willingness to set aside the Muslim Brotherhood's ideological opposition and most Egyptians' hostility to Israel. Several factors, however, could still destabilize the situation, including terrorist attacks in Sinai or from Gaza, the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, and populist demands to break relations with Israel. 

If Morsy were to ditch this peace treaty, it would represent a profound strategic defeat for the United States in the Middle East and could threaten a regional war. The United States should continue its policy of conditional engagement with Morsy's government and, in particular, deepen its security cooperation and coordination. It should also develop a new modus vivendi with Egyptian and Israeli partners through cooperation over common concerns in Sinai and Gaza that would advance the sustainability of the peace treaty.


Revolution in China 

While China continues on its path of growth and seeming political confidence, a number of problems lie beneath the surface of its apparent success. A sense of political uncertainty -- as well as a fear of sociopolitical instability -- is on the rise. Many in the country worry about environmental degradation, health hazards, and all manner of public safety problems. These pitfalls could trigger any number of major crises: slowed economic growth, widespread social unrest, vicious political infighting among the elite, rampant official corruption, and heightened Chinese nationalism in the wake of territorial disputes. In this rapidly modernizing but still oligarchic one-party state, it is not hard to see how such a crisis could take the form of a domestic revolution or foreign war.

Either event would be very disruptive, severely impairing global economic development and regional security in the Asia-Pacific. A combination of the two would constitute one of the most complicated foreign-policy problems of the president's second term. A domestic revolution and a foreign war would certainly be the defining events of our time. The latter could potentially risk leading the United States into military conflict in Asia.

The best way to prepare for either likelihood is for the White House to achieve a delicate balancing act -- cultivating a deeper relationship with Xi Jinping and his new leadership team on the one hand, and reaching out directly to the Chinese people on the other. The United States should more explicitly articulate to leaders in Beijing and the Chinese public the long-standing goodwill that the United States has toward China and America's firm commitment to democracy, human rights, media freedom, and the rule of law.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

The Big Thaw

Global warming is happening faster than predicted by scientists. Temperatures are rising, ice caps and glaciers are melting, and extreme weather is more frequent and intense than ever before in recent history. If these trends continue, the results will be monumental and far-reaching. But it could get even worse: If warming accelerates dramatically and if polar ice melts even faster -- particularly if the Greenland ice sheet or the West Antarctic ice sheet melts -- the results could be catastrophic.

Some scientists have suggested that the melting of polar ice has not previously proceeded in a smooth and linear process, but rather had "sensitive tipping points." Although unlikely, this raises the possibility of a black-swan nightmare in which rises in sea level coupled with extreme weather events threaten some of the world's major cities. It's not difficult to imagine another superstorm like Hurricane Sandy during Obama's second term, but perhaps we should be thinking -- and planning -- for a year in which we suffer through a dozen Sandys.

A significant rise in sea levels throughout the world would have a particularly devastating impact on concentrated populations living in low-lying coastal areas. The local economy, politics, and security in these regions would all be transformed, but perhaps the biggest impact would be climate-induced migration and displacement. The United States can help mitigate these risks by giving climate change a higher priority in international and domestic policymaking -- leading new multilateral initiatives and increasing mitigation and adaptation. 

Obama needs to keep his word and move climate change higher on his political agenda. In 2009, he pledged to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 to a level 17 percent lower than that in 2005 -- but no legislation, executive order, regulation, or published plan currently exists to translate this promise into action.

* * * 

All these black swans may seem to be leading the world into an era of greater violence and instability. But as Obama enters his second term, this time of uncertainty and instability is actually a moment of opportunity for the president. The world currently faces a "plastic juncture" -- a moment when the United States has a chance to remold the international system into something better. Obama has a unique opportunity to strengthen and extend the liberal world order from which Americans and so many others around the world have benefited.

To create a more secure and prosperous world, Obama will need to place a series of "big bets" -- investing his power, time, and prestige in major efforts that can have a transformational impact on America and the world, as well as on his legacy. But he will always need his radar tuned to those untoward events that could disrupt his best-laid plans.