Great expectations for Obama abroad

Team Obama is more pragmatic and less ideological than its predecessors, say diplomats and campaign advisers. Afghanistan will be a foreign-policy priority.

Enrique Castro-Mendivil /Reuters
A Peruvian shaman perfromed a ritual of predictions for the new year in front of a picture of President-elect Barack Obama in Lima, Peru.
President-elect Barack Obama had visited French President Nicolas Sarkozy at Palais de l'Elysee in Paris in July.
AFP/Getty Images/Newscom
BATTLEFIELD BRIDGE: Gen. David Petraeus, head of US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, will be a key player again in 2009. Above, Barack Obama met the general in Iraq in 2008.

The Promise of Change was central to Barack Obama's presidential election. It also played well abroad to a global populace that was largely critical of US policy in Iraq and its handling of suspected terrorists, according to polls. Expectations for a new approach are high. In Africa, President-Elect Obama is seen as their man. In Europe and elsewhere, he's a new symbol of American ideals of equality – where even a black man who went to school in Indonesia can reach the pinnacle of power. But are such expectations unrealistic? How will Obama capitalize on the goodwill that now exists?

Can Obama restore US prestige abroad?

In many places, Obama's election has already reversed a deep pessimism, according to foreign-policy analysts, ambassadors, and intellectuals interviewed. Some American diplomats say that, despite problems that would be serious without a global financial crisis, they are optimistic, guardedly, for the first time in years. Obama does not have a long track record of foreign policy experience. But he represents an opening abroad for something new. The intelligence with which the Obama team organized the campaign and outlasted formidable opponents is not lost on foreign elites. Europeans say Obama "gets" the globalized world, and his biography gives him some unique insights.

"Obama is the most global, multilateral president we've had in a century," argues Ronald Asmus, director of the German Marshall Fund in Brussels, "and he will change the direction of US foreign policy."

In Berlin in July, Obama described the world as at "a crossroads" – testing a future that will have greater unity and a "shared destiny" among peoples, or not.

No one underestimates the challenges of disunity. "We are entering territory in which the risks and penalties of getting something like the global economic crisis wrong – are greater than the stakes during the cold war … a time when the worst didn't happen," says François Heisbourg at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. "No one has figured out how to deal with this new crisis; Obama will have to learn fast."

How will Obama change the 'tone' of US diplomacy, as promised during the campaign?

Five basic themes have emerged: First, Team Obama is more pragmatic, and less ideological than its predecessors; it's open to negotiation. Second, we can expect an emphasis on example, and a de-emphasis on rhetoric such as "spreading democracy." Third, he brings an end to the neoconservative model of tying notions of freedom directly to American military might, a rebalance of "soft" and "hard' power. Fourth, we should see an emphasis on working with international organizations and groups such as the UN and the World Bank. Fifth, putting America's house in order – economic recovery, energy security, renewed infrastructure at home – is crucial to rebuilding global respect.

"Look for dropping the preachy rhetoric, which Clinton was just as bad at as Bush," says James Swihart, a career diplomat and former ambassador to Lithuania. "I would like to see the word 'must' and 'historic' dropped from speeches. The big question is whether Obama will drop the phrase 'war on terror.' It's long overdue."

Can we expect dramatic, immediate changes?

Probably not. The Obama honeymoon allows versatility and leverage. But for at least two years under President Bush, changes have been under way and US policies revised. The US did eventually negotiate with North Korea and sent an envoy to Iran, both part of President Bush's "axis of evil." The mutual disdain with Paris and Berlin over "old Europe" has returned to a robust exchange, with caveats on Afghanistan troops. The Bush team set the table for an Iraq drawdown. The era of neocon heavyweights like Doug Feith, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz has given way to greater pragmatism.

In 2009, Obama's approach will likely be cautious, focusing on rebuilding, attempting what Strobe Talbott at the Brookings Institution in Washington calls the "art of the possible" – doing significant symbolic things: Closing the Guantánamo Bay detention center and stopping torture; grass-roots diplomatic "listening"; participating enthusiastically in the global climate change conference next November in Copenhagen, Denmark, and finding apt messages for the Muslim world.

But the few clues offered so far suggest that Job 1 in Year 1 will be Iraq, Afghanistan, and the financial crisis.

What are Obama's key international concerns?

The list is long. Obama told Time magazine that nuclear proliferation keeps him up at night. But in the 21st century that means less concern about mutual destruction of nations, and more about rogue weapons.

Also high on the list: working with a nationalist Russia that could challenge Western ideas of progress; a China more connected with the US and open, but energy hungry and not transparent. (Beijing traditionally prefers Republicans.) Then, there are transnational terror cells; food and energy costs for already strapped nations in developing regions; and the Middle East.

Two issues loom, at this point: an Israeli-Hamas cease-fire, and fears in Israel over a growing pile of low-level plutonium in Iran that can be reprocessed into weapons. But Afghanistan is the immediate matter. By some estimates, the Taliban control 75 percent of the country now. The next White House does not want Afghanistan to be "Obama's quagmire." Mishandled, the result could be a fractured Pakistan, a war between Pakistan and India, as well as damage to the NATO alliance and European relations. Obama's national security adviser, retired Gen. James Jones, will be a key player. In a World Security Network interview in February, he outlined a five-point plan, starting with stopping narcotics funding for the insurgency, called for a regional solution, and said that a military answer alone isn't adequate.

What specifics are known about the incoming Obama team strategy?

Actually, very little. After Nov. 4, Team Obama went into a near blackout on foreign-policy information. The team has moved faster on appointments than either Bill Clinton's or George W. Bush's. The plan is to hit the ground running, but the tight-lipped, disciplined approach so far has "amazed" one campaign adviser and "impressed" a well-connected foreign diplomat. "If you talk, you don't get a job," says one former high-level Clinton administration diplomat. By late January, when more of the foreign-policy team is announced, a clearer picture may emerge. Some press reports suggest splits already between realist and idealist camps – between a Defense chief Robert Gates and General Jones wing, and a Susan Rice-Tony Lake wing that wants more attention on Darfur and human rights. But some diplomats warn this is speculation.

Watch Mr. Gates's trip to the Munich Security summit, in February. It is likely to suggest how Obama wants to deal with Russia, NATO in Afghanistan, the status of Georgia and Ukraine. There's talk of a new security architecture for Europe – which would include the concerns Poland and the Baltics have about Moscow.

How will the global recession shape US policies?

Handled wisely, it could present an opportunity for closer international collaboration. Handled poorly, it could bring fractiousness, the break up of globalization, protectionism, new divisions among states.

For Obama at home the crisis could help force difficult choices and set foreign priorities; it may alter the current practice of paying for Iraq and Afghanistan by borrowing. America's war deficits could balloon from initial estimates of $200 billion – to $1.7 trillion in another decade, according to a recent study by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Can Obama, Clinton, and Biden work together?

Initially, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's appointment as secretary of State was spun into a Washington insiders "team of rivals" story. The team was called "hawkish." But most diplomats say Senator Clinton represents dramatic change. How closely Clinton will work with another foreign-policy player – Vice President-elect Joe Biden – is unclear. But Obama, Biden, and Clinton – are a unique team. At a practical level, one diplomat notes, in the early days when world leaders all want to meet Obama, having them meet Clinton instead will be no disappointment.

Gates and Jones will help Obama's relations with the Pentagon. But ending the Iraq war is not simple. Finding a way through the morass of Afghanistan is not simple. There are likely fewer basic divides between Obama's foreign-policy players than there were within the Bush team in its first year. The main divide may be between realists and liberal internationalists. "Will we impose a democracy litmus test on states?" says one Obama campaign adviser. "Or will we work with Russia and Saudi Arabia ... and leave aside the question of how they organize themselves?"

What wild cards lie ahead?

Former British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan was once asked what he feared most as a politician. He reportedly said, "Events." Such events may be a terrorist attack or a larger Mideast crisis emerging out of the Hamas-Israeli conflict in Gaza. Few pundits in January of 2001 would have forecast the turn the world took after Sept. 11.

One possible difference from the outgoing administration is that the incoming one seems aware of how bumpy the ride can get. In Berlin, Obama said that in a globalized world, the terror bred in poverty in Somalia, a genocide in Darfur, or loose nuclear material in the former Soviet Union has consequences for all.

"In this new world … dangerous currents have swept along faster than our efforts to contain them. That is why we cannot afford to be divided," Obama said.

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