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Leading By Engaging

WASHINGTON, DC – In his first inaugural address, US President Barack Obama offered an invitation to the world’s most closed countries. “We will extend a hand,” he said, “if you are willing to unclench your fist.” This statement encapsulated the foreign policy of “engagement” that he endorsed during his first term – an approach that, despite some shortcomings, has a lot of merit.

Obama rejected his predecessor George W. Bush’s policy of isolating “rogue states,” recognizing that America’s only hope for influencing isolated countries’ behavior was to engage directly with them in a bilateral context. And, as a bilateral strategy, engagement has proved to be astonishingly successful, having led to historic openings, first to Myanmar and now to Cuba, while driving progress toward an enduring nuclear agreement with Iran.

From the beginning, however, the Obama administration has made clear that engagement is not an end in itself, but a means to various goals, both bilateral and regional.

In Myanmar, the bilateral goal was to nudge the government toward greater openness and democracy – something that has unquestionably happened. The pro-democracy leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest; her party won seats in parliament; and millions of Burmese are now studying their country’s constitution and have petitioned for amendments.