Obama looks outwards

As Barack Obama steps back onto the diplomatic stage, the perception that he has reasserted his political authority at home means he is being taken more seriously abroad.


So he’s not Jimmy Carter after all. Barack Obama was in Prague this week to sign a strategic arms treaty with Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev. Next week the US president plays host to 50 world leaders to discuss strengthening arrangements for nuclear security. In between times, he published a new military strategy that significantly narrows the circumstances in which the US would use its nuclear arsenal.

Obama, in other words, looks like a leader pretty much in command of his agenda. These three events mark an important way station on a route he mapped during a speech in the Czech capital a year ago. We are still light years away from the nuclear-free world he mentioned then. But we have stopped heading in the wrong direction. The latest initiatives have restored momentum to multilateral arms reduction. The collapse of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty does not look quite so inevitable.

This takes Obama some distance from the commonplace caricatures of only a couple of months ago. Then, even sympathetic observers were drawing baleful comparisons with the foreign policy calamities of Carter’s presidency. Obama, the argument ran, had spent his first year making speeches about restoring American prestige. He looked destined to spend his second explaining why he had failed.

The president’s deliberative style jarred with the impatience of a modern political culture shaped by 24-hour rolling news. Hadn’t he promised to pursue peace in the Middle East and to persuade the Iranians to see reason? But the Israelis and Palestinians were no closer to a deal, and Tehran was still building the bomb. For a growing band of critics, engagement looked suspiciously like appeasement.

The perception of failure was always premature. Along with the impatience, it reflected an unrealistic belief that the world’s most powerful nation can always get its own way. If that was ever true, it certainly does not hold in an era when new powers are contesting US primacy.

Foreign policy challenges – whether Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the war in Afghanistan or the Arab-Israeli conflict – cannot all be "fixed”. Some have to be managed. That is why George Kennan invented something called containment to frame US policy during the cold war. Bilateral relationships with rival powers – whether Russia or China – will always be bumpy.

The turning point for Obama came with the passage of healthcare legislation. No one could ever accuse commentators of consistency: a beleaguered leader overnight became a titan who had achieved something that had eluded his most illustrious predecessors.

These things rub off. It is hard to say with certainty whether Hu Jintao, China’s president, would have agreed to attend next week’s Washington summit had Obama still been fighting in the Congressional trenches. My diplomat friends say probably not.

Either way, the perception that he has rebuilt his political authority at home means that he is being taken more seriously abroad. Obama has been helped too by signs that the US economy will emerge quite strongly from the global recession. The Democrats still look set to lose ground in the mid-term elections but the meltdown predicted only weeks ago is no longer a certainty.

On the president’s part, the manner of the health victory suggested a grit that had earlier been absent. As one shrewd Washingtonian told me, Obama stopped behaving like a prime minister and acted instead like a president.

Success in politics begets success. But foolish as it was to write him off a few weeks ago, it would be equally mistaken to imagine all is plain sailing from now on in. The president’s foreign policy insight had been that the US is the vital but insufficient power in safeguarding global security. That means it will often have to compromise.

Last July I likened Obama to a chess master playing several games simultaneously. Instead of taking foreign policy challenges sequentially, he had made the opening moves in all the important games. Since then the metaphor has gained currency, and it remains a good description of his approach. Each of the games, though, is proving tougher than he imagined.

The White House has belatedly told Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu that a halt to settlement building on occupied Palestinian land is a necessary condition for negotiations about a two-state solution. But that in itself does not guarantee progress, not least because the Palestinians have yet to show they are serious about a settlement.

If Obama wants to give himself a real shot at brokering a peace deal he will have to present his own proposals as the basis for talks. Somehow – and this is a really tough one politically – he will also have to find a way to draw the Palestinian Hamas movement into the process.

Likewise, the recent antics of Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, have underscored how difficult it will be to secure even a draw in the contest against the Taliban. Political paralysis in Baghdad puts in jeopardy the timetable for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.

I could go on. Russia’s signature on a new Start treaty will not dampen its ambitions to re-establish its influence over the former Soviet space. The thaw in relations with China may prove as short-lived as the freeze that preceded it.

Then there is Iran. The other challenges can be managed, albeit with difficulty. If necessary, Obama can play for a draw. Tehran’s nuclear ambitions take him on to more perilous territory – both in terms of America’s strategic position and of the domestic fall-out were Iran to get the bomb. This is the game with the highest stakes, and, on present form, it is one Obama could well lose.

Elsewhere, the president could do more to help himself. Infuriating though they are, Europeans come fairly cheap as allies: they basically want to be told that they are wanted. Obama should also pay closer attention to Japan – a vital strategic ally that, like the US itself, is trying to come to terms with China’s rise.

By shaking off analogies with Carter, Obama has made life easier for himself; it does not mean he can wish away the world’s problems. Having an endgame – in chess or foreign policy – is no guarantee of success. On the other hand, it is a pretty useful start.

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