In London and Prague, Obama began the transformation of US nuclear weapons policy. Now, the challenge is to implement this vision. Overcoming the dwindling band of nuclear Neanderthals clinging to cold war arsenals will be the easy part. Harder will be overcoming the cynicism in media and policy circles and the incrementalism of some of his own officials.
President Obama's foreign policy is a mystery wrapped in an enigma, covering his obvious thoughtfulness, intelligence, and inexperience.
Iranians vibrated to his praise for ancient Persian culture and his sensitivity toward Islam. In saying he wanted to negotiate, he gave away nothing and put the onus on the Mullahs for a response. After initial toing and froing before the G-20, he nailed down the group's consensus on economic stimuli, regulation, and help for poor nations. It was a lowest common denominator deal, but it kept all going in the same direction. At and before the summit of the Americas, he showed he did not fear petty dictators like Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and the Castros of Cuba.
In sum, he demonstrated the necessary sensitivity toward other countries and cultures and took the necessary first step to clear the air worldwide of Bush-inspired anti-Americanism. This was the right step -- and the easy step. Now comes the very hard part -- figuring out priorities between restoring the economy and managing international crises, and figuring out how to use his precious powers to solve or manage these situations.
Good strategy demands choices and priorities. Otherwise, American power gets dissipated. We don't know yet whether Mr. Obama is such a strategist or whether he or his team can produce such essential strategy.
Leslie H. Gelb is the author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (2009)
Through his policies in Iraq and Afghanistan -- especially the decision to expand our commitment in Afghanistan -- President Obama demonstrated early on that he’s not the least bit uncomfortable commanding a muscular American posture abroad, even if it means bucking his own party at home. But there are still a number of decisions to be made, the most pressing of which is Iran. If Iran goes nuclear on President Obama’s watch, not much else in his foreign or domestic agendas will matter. And on a broader level -- from the Middle East to the former Soviet Republics -- it is still unclear if the President will succumb to pressure from within his Administration to dismiss human rights and democracy promotion as priorities. These questions are central to understanding President Obama’s worldview and evaluating his foreign policy. Right now, it’s an incomplete picture.
Amidst the blizzard of President Obama’s symbolic gestures and foreign policy initiatives, three principles already stand out:
1) Post-partisan Pragmatism
Obama is willing to upend policies that prove -- or threaten -- to be failures, regardless of whether they service a liberal or conservative stereotype. If the Cuban embargo hasn’t brought freedom in 50 years, how about a new approach? When it appears that negotiating with pirates will risk failure, shoot them. Since Afghanistan has rapidly sunk to new depths of insecurity, let’s change strategy. This type of ruthless, effects-based policy places results above ideology.
2) Leading in Partnership
This Administration understands that you can’t lead without stepping inside the tent. Whether the team is the United Nations, a transatlantic partnership, or a hemispheric community, you must play to win. Engaging, listening and, yes, even cooperating on issues that matter to others holds enormous power after years of Bush “because I said so” leadership. Obama might just transform American exceptionalism into American exemplarism.
3) Fearless Foreign Policy
Obama does not conflate engagement with endorsement or mistake friendship for unanimity of view. The President has made clear his dissatisfaction with Afghan leader Hamid Karzai even as U.S. troops support that government. While extending his hand to Hugo Chavez, Obama has criticized Venezuelan policies. America’s closest allies and public enemies have thus far both received healthy doses of unvarnished truth from the new American president.
Obama has extended this form of tough love to Americans as well, counseling patience, investment, and even new initiatives in these bleak economic times. His temperament seems inured to the gripping fear that prompted other leaders to abandon American liberties and condone color-coded panic.
The strengths of this President, though, are also his weaknesses. He is betting that change will beget change -- that his ways of engaging, facing hard truths, and formulating alternative policies will ultimately produce results, upending both Washington politics and foreign states’ ingrained national security habits and calculations. But for example, what if Congress fails to deliver the resources to realign defense and foreign policy priorities? What if Iran is impervious to a negotiated resolution of its ambition to develop nuclear weapons?
If Bush's ideological unilateralism held false promise, the inverse risk is now in play. Much in Obama's initiatives ultimately lies outside of his control. While the payoffs may be far higher, betting on others can be risky. Perhaps this is why Obama recently told Europeans that American is changing, but it cannot be America alone that changes.
I think the gestures that he's made, while perhaps intended to signal openness, will perhaps transmit weakness, which will be very detrimental to our national interests for the remainder of his term and beyond.
Response obtained via telephone 4/28/09
The most impressive aspect of President Obama’s foreign policy thus far is the shear number of initiatives he has launched during his first one hundred days in office: Re-energizing our efforts in Pakistan and Afghanistan, commencing the withdrawal from Iraq, dramatically shifting nuclear-weapons policy, including support for the CTBT and cooperation with Russia, changing policies towards Cuba, an opening to Iran, working with our partners to de-nuclearize the Korean Peninsula, pushing peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, and Syria, helping Mexico fight the drug cartels and more.
The tone and rhetoric of American foreign policy is different. The President clearly supports diplomacy and engagement, and he has attempted to change the country’s operating environment. His foreign policy is pragmatic, realistic, and visionary at the same time. Will all, or any, of this work? Everything depends upon policy implementation and execution.
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