After the War on Terror

NEW YORK – The basic outlines of Barack Obama’s approach to foreign policy became clear in 2009. His administration believes that the United States should talk with other governments even if it disagrees profoundly with their character. He prefers acting with other countries to going it alone. And he has shifted the focus of US foreign policy from what countries do within their borders to how they act beyond them.

All of this differentiates Obama from his immediate predecessor, George W. Bush, whose administration branded selected countries as evil and mostly refused to deal with them; often rejected cooperation with other governments, lest the US find itself constrained; and sought to transform other countries, rather than to influence their actions. Any parallels between Obama’s foreign policy and that of Bush are more with the father, America’s 41st president, George H.W. Bush.

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Diplomacy, of course, should not be viewed as a favor or concession that signals “softness.” Obama rightly recognizes that it is an important tool of foreign policy, to be employed when it promises results that are more favorable than the alternatives.

Obama is also correct that acting in concert with others is almost always desirable. The challenges that most define this era – nuclear proliferation, terrorism, global climate change, and pandemic disease – can be managed only collectively. Moreover, the reality is that the US is now too stretched economically and militarily to succeed by relying solely on its own resources.

Finally, Obama is right to focus more on the behavior of countries than on their nature. It is not just that the assistance of odious governments is sometimes essential; it is also that there is nothing more difficult than remaking the internal workings of other societies.

Yet, even with these adjustments, and despite Obama’s communication skills and his personal popularity (reflected in his Nobel Peace Prize and in declining anti-Americanism around the world), 2009 was a difficult first year for his administration’s foreign policy.

To begin with, a willingness to talk to governments does not always translate into an ability to work with them. The US has shown new flexibility with Iran and North Korea, but neither has reciprocated so far. Reasonableness does not always yield results.

Similarly, countries often choose not to cooperate. China, for example, resists using its influence with North Korea, fearing that instability on the Korean peninsula could lead to large refugee flows into China or a united Korea allied with the US. China prefers an imperfect status quo to such alternatives.

For its part, Russia appears reluctant to pressure Iran to reining in its nuclear ambitions. Obama has worked hard to improve US-Russian ties: bilateral arms control is again a priority, and the president agreed to alter plans for anti-missile deployments in Poland and the Czech Republic. But Russian leaders resist tough sanctions on Iran, lest they jeopardize financial dealings there and lead to increased Iranian support for Muslim minorities inside Russia. As a result, it will be difficult in 2010 and beyond to develop an effective package of sanctions and incentives that enjoys broad international backing.

Similarly, when it came to negotiating a new pact to mitigate global climate change, diplomatic efforts had to contend with international discord in 2009, forcing leaders to postpone their efforts yet again. With developing countries fearing the impact of binding limits on carbon emissions on their economic growth, and with insufficient support in the US Congress, a global treaty appears unlikely in 2010 as well.

In the Middle East, despite Obama’s vow to re-start the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, progress remained stymied by differences over the scope and content of an agreement and how to bring it about. The lack of forward movement stems not just from disagreement over goals, but also from the inability of a divided Palestinian leadership to compromise. Weak protagonists make poor participants in peace negotiations.

Moreover, other countries’ domestic politics do matter for what Obama can accomplish. Afghanistan’s often corrupt and incompetent government undermines counter-insurgency efforts there. Pakistan’s government does not share the same threat assessments or priorities as its American benefactor. No amount of increased American military effort is likely to offset the resulting lack of progress in weakening extremists in both countries.

Domestic politics in the US is also getting in the way of Obama’s foreign-policy goals. The absence of consensus on climate change, or resistance in Congress to new trade agreements, weakens the president’s hand. And America’s unwillingness to take meaningful steps to reduce its ballooning fiscal deficit further undermines the effectiveness of its foreign policy.

Finally, some of what the Obama administration chose to do (singling out Israeli settlements, for example) and how it did it (Guantánamo comes to mind) made tough situations tougher. But the larger truth is that the world has become a more difficult place to manage, much less to lead. The post-Cold War era of US unipolarity has ended, owing to America’s economic mismanagement, the war in Iraq, the continuing rise of other countries, and globalization.

There are bright spots, of course. America’s relations with other major powers – China, India, Japan, Russia, Europe, and Brazil – are at least as cooperative as they are competitive; conflict between such major powers, the dominant characteristic of the international order in the twentieth century, is unlikely. It is also possible that some of today’s most closed countries, including Iran, North Korea, Burma, Cuba, and Venezuela, will become more open and less threatening with time.

On balance, though, early evidence suggests that this will not be an era of smooth multilateralism or American leadership. Something more complicated, and unwieldy, appears increasingly likely. Barack Obama’s next three years in office (or seven, if he is re-elected in 2012) will likely be characterized as much by frustration as by accomplishment.