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Obama at one year: new realism in foreign policy

Less ideological than Bush, Barack Obama pursues a more traditional approach to foreign affairs, marked by a narrower definition of US interests.

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Obama, of course, was never a diplomat as the first Bush was, whose résumé included a stint as the US ambassador to the United Nations.

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But Obama’s extraordinary string of speeches in foreign capitals in his first year – in Prague, Czech Republic; Moscow; Ankara, Turkey; Cairo; and Accra, Ghana; all topped off by his “just war” speech in Oslo – suggests a diplomat’s understanding of the unique influence of the American president, especially a globally popular one. The speeches also announced that a more cooperative America was back.

“What stands out is the way this president has changed the image of America in all our countries,” says a senior European diplomat in Washington. “We see it in Afghanistan. We see it in his speeches like the one to the world’s Muslims from Cairo. It’s a strong America, but one that knows that no one country has the solutions to the world’s problems.”

Obama’s decision to stick to an extended trip to Asia in November, even as critical domestic issues, including healthcare reform and job creation, demanded attention, underscored the administration’s focus on a region that will increasingly determine the course of global affairs. It also suggested, given that the trip promised no breakthroughs, an approach emphasizing patient and sustained diplomacy with the hope of delivering results down the road.

(Obama was criticized by conservatives for being too accommodating in Asia, symbolized by the president’s deep bow and handshake to Japanese Emperor Akihito in Tokyo. The New Yorker magazine subsequently had great fun with the “wow bow,” depicting on its Dec. 14 cover Obama bowing to and shaking the velvety glove of a jolly red-suited fellow who has just come down the Oval Office chimney.)

In the end, Obama might be free to patiently test the validity of a return to a “traditional” American foreign policy in the 21st century and to juggle competing demands of realist and idealist approaches were it not for one thing: the war in Afghanistan and his decision to escalate it.

“Wars consume presidencies,” says Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official who led Obama’s first interagency Afghanistan review in the initial weeks of his presidency. Estimating that Obama has 18 to 24 months to show results in what is now “his war,” Mr. Riedel, now at Washington’s Brookings Institution, says Obama “is going to have to come out once a week, maybe more often than that, explaining why we’re there, what we’re doing, whether it’s succeeding.”

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