Obama’s emerging foreign policy team faces a troubled world

The goal is continuity in international relationships with a clear break from Bush’s approach.

By , Staff writer

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    President-elect Barack Obama faces a mix of goodwill and tough challenges as shifts from campaign mode to implementing a foreign policy.
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President-elect Barack Obama’s election victory was only hours old when Afghan President Hamid Karzai issued his congratulations – and a demand to the incoming American commander-in-chief that US airstrikes causing civilian casualties in his country be stopped.

It was an example of the mix of goodwill and tough challenges facing the president-elect as he shifts from campaign mode to implementing a foreign policy that will combine continuity in international relationships with a clear departure from the foreign policy of President Bush, international affairs experts and advisers to the Obama team say.

“We’re going to see a strategic world vision from a President Obama that is very different from the one that guided the Bush administration, but it is going to be unveiled through signals and a series of speeches that will take us into the first 30 to 45 days of the new presidency,” says Bruce Jentleson, a former Clinton administration State Department official now at the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

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Top priorities will be Afghanistan, where Obama has said he wants more troops but also a new, broader strategy beyond a military focus; the international financial and economic crisis; an orderly disengagement from Iraq; and what to do about Iran’s nuclear program.

In a number of these top-priority areas, the policy itself is unlikely to undergo a wholesale change, so much as the style employed to address policy will look radically different, some longtime foreign-policy experts say.

“It’s hard to imagine there are going to be any dramatic changes in policy, as much as there might be dramatic changes in the approach to these policies,” says Susan Eisenhower, a prominent national security analyst and early Republican supporter of Obama’s candidacy.

“If you look at the Clinton-to-Bush transition, there was significant extension of the groundwork already laid, whether in NATO expansion, or how Clinton used preemption in the Balkans,” she says. “So while it may seem heretical to some to say, I think we will see a lot of continuity, but with a change of style and a meaningful dialogue that the international community is very much looking forward to having with us.”

Beyond that, expect to see some high-profile statements or gestures even in the transition period on international issues like global warming and war-on-terror detainees that will signal how Mr. Obama intends to repair cooperation with the world community and to refurbish American global leadership.

“Climate change is one of those areas, where the US has been more laggard than leader, where some signal will be sent that we are shifting gears and are prepared to reestablish not just cooperation but, really, American leadership,” says Mr. Jentleson.

A United Nations climate change conference in Poland in early December could be a venue Obama uses – either by attending himself or by sending a representative – to send a message of new American dedication to both addressing global warming and to assuming a leadership role on the issue.

Such a leadership role would likely include promoting a new vision of the climate-change challenge, as well as an opportunity for rebuilding a weakened global economy through green innovation, some observers say.

Obama’s short list of foreign policy officials includes Republicans as well as Democrats.

Aside from climate change, an early commitment to closing the Guantánamo detention facility or a high-profile gesture at Saturday’s G20 summit in Washington – which President Bush has invited Obama to attend – could signal Obama’s intentions to build up international cooperation.

(The “Group of 20” includes the seven major industrialized nations – Britain, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, Germany, and the United States – plus Argentina, Australia, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, and the European Union.)

As part of a renewed dialogue with America’s partners, Obama is expected to make specific demands of allies early on – for example, over the NATO commitment in Afghanistan. The nearly global euphoria over Obama’s election will face a quick test as the new president asks for more troops to bolster an expanded US effort in Afghanistan, some foreign-policy experts say.
"I think this new administration is going to pretty quickly run into an expectations-reality gap,” says Wess Mitchell, director of research at the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington.

What Mr. Mitchell does expect to see is a stronger effort by US officials under an Obama administration to “listen” to allies and work with them around their political constraints. What we won’t see is a departure into wholly new foreign-policy territory – especially given the stark redirection already carried out by Bush in his second term.

“I expect to see more continuity than divergence,” he says.

But Duke’s Mr. Jentleson says he does expect Obama to lay out over the first month or two of his presidency a “strategic world vision” that reflects the far-reaching changes and diffusion of power since the last change in presidents – and which dictate a new and different American approach to global challenges.

Hints of this vision are likely to surface in the inaugural address and State of the Union speech, Jentleson adds. “It won’t be a matter of going back to where the world was before the Bush administration, but rather recognizing the world has changed profoundly and requires a new American leadership.”

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