As President Obama heads into a second term, he is only beginning to hint at how he might change his leadership style in world affairs. The first big clues will be his choices for secretaries of State and Defense.
News reports say Sen. John Kerry (D) will be tapped for State while former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, a moderate Republican, may be headed for the Pentagon. If so, this would suggest a return to Mr. Obama’s attempts early in his first presidency to engage America’s adversaries abroad rather than isolate or harm them.
Mr. Hagel has been a strong critic of economic sanctions in general and has favored talks with the Palestinian militant group Hamas. Senator Kerry was active in talking directly to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Their faith in quiet diplomacy rather than threats reflects Obama’s attempts soon after he took office to extend a hand to Iran, Venezuela, and North Korea.
Those attempts failed, and, in general, his foreign policy then took on a tougher tone. That new tone may also have helped him in the 2012 campaign fend off GOP attacks painting him as a weak leader and an apologist. But will he now revive a style of using more carrots than sticks, more ideas and persuasion than threats and sanctions?
Long a proponent of “soft power” – or reinforcing America’s values abroad – Obama learned by the end of his first year that he had to become pragmatic. In accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in late 2009, he said that Americans “must try as best we can to balance isolation and engagement, pressure and incentives.”
But now that he won’t be running again, he is free to really test a values-based approach, relying on negotiations while also reevaluating the use of sanctions on authoritarian regimes, such as Cuba.
“Engagement is not appeasement,” said Hagel in a 2008 speech. “Great nations engage. Powerful nations must be the adults in world affairs. Anything less will result in disastrous, useless, preventable global conflict.”
The most difficult tests will be in any talks with the Taliban and Iran. Talks with the Taliban are necessary for a successful end to America’s long war in Afghanistan; talks with Iran are essential to preventing that country from obtaining a nuclear weapon or preventing an Israeli attack on Iran. Yet the history of talking with terrorists or terror-backing nations is mixed.
The United States did talk down Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi from his quest for nuclear weapons and in his backing of terrorism. Iraq’s Sunni terrorists were talked out of their support of Al Qaeda and in use of violence. But the Taliban has resisted any meaningful negotiations. And Iran has remained defiant in its nuclear policy even as Obama has ratcheted up sanctions on the regime.
Attempting such talks often allows the US to walk the moral high ground in a display of humility. But it also has practical uses even if the talks fail. It can split an adversary into factions, eroding its power. It also can win over allies to eventually supporting tougher action.
Sanctions, too, have a mixed record in either bringing down a regime (Castro’s Cuba) or changing behavior (the Kims of North Korea). Yet they, too, create a moral base, laying down a marker on values, while taking action short of armed conflict. They constitute a “war without bullets.”
As he picks his national security team and prepares his speeches in coming weeks, Obama will signal how the US will act on the world stage for the next four years. He has learned hard lessons so far and may have not followed his instincts in order to get reelected. He needs to settle on a style of leadership that is both effective and values-based. It is not an easy balance, but it is necessary.