For impeccable reasons,Barack Obama has concentrated since becoming president on fixing America’s economy. On foreign policy,he has only sketched the outline. Soon,however,he must start to fill in some details. Early next month he goes to Europe for the G20 summit on the world economy,NATO’s 60th birthday party in Strasbourg and a meeting with the European Union in Prague. He intends on the same trip to take in Turkey,thus fulfilling a promise to make an early visit to a Muslim country and start mending relations with the Islamic world. When he visited Europe as a candidate last summer,200,000 Berliners cheered him to the skies. This time,he will be expected to put substance behind the magic.
So far,the outline at least is fine. Mr Obama has resisted the temptation to tear up every one of George Bush’s policies,but he has transformed the tone. The fight against al-Qaeda is to continue,but without the preaching that alienated America’s allies or the torture that betrayed its values. He is pulling out of Iraq,but on a cautious timetable. He is sending more troops to Afghanistan,but reviewing the strategy of a war he admits America is failing to win. He is extending his hand to adversaries,but without yet making America look like a soft touch.
This belief in engaging is so far the most visible element of the emerging Obama doctrine. Mr Obama,it seems,is not a man to push foes into a corner or stick rude labels on them,as Mr Bush did. Iran and Syria are no longer rogue regimes beyond polite society: the band formerly known as the axis of evil is being summoned to join the conversation. Iran may have armed the Taliban but is invited to a big tent meeting on Afghanistan. Syria may have ordered the assassination of a former prime minister of Lebanon,but Hillary Clinton,Mr Obama’s secretary of state,has sent her officials to patch up relations with Bashar Assad. Russia invaded Georgia,but,hey,that was last summer. Now the NATO-Russia Council is to resume meetings and Mr Obama is renewing long-stalled talks with Russia on cutting nuclear weapons.
Those who believe,as the neocons did,that the focus of foreign policy should be to promote liberal democracy,will find much to disapprove of. But a policy of pinching one’s nose and engaging with malodorous regimes has its merits. It treats the world as it is,not as it should be,and it gives awkward customers a chance to change course and co-operate with America without losing face. To foreign-policy realists,that is a nice change from the with-us-or-against-us approach of Mr Bush’s first term,when a lot of countries voted against.
Not just a nice guy,thank goodness
On the other hand,the test of a policy based on realism is whether it delivers results,and engagement on its own,as Mr Bush discovered in his chastened second term,seldom alters the behaviour of regimes that think they are acting rationally in their own vital interests. Look at North Korea,still threatening war after diplomats have spent bottom-numbing years in talks. Or at Iran,which talked and talked to well-meaning Europeans but still insists on its nuclear rights (ie,the right to get within a screwdriver’s turn of a bomb). Talk,even from a president as winning as Mr Obama,needs to be accompanied by some hard-edged diplomacy.
Has Mr Obama got the necessary hardness? So it seems. His decision to reinforce the war in Afghanistan while scaling down in Iraq shows that he is not afraid to use America’s military power (though we think he should have stopped America’s counterproductive air raids on terrorists in Pakistan). He recently told Russia that if it helps stop Iran going nuclear,America might drop the plan Russia loathes to station missile defences in Poland and the Czech Republic. This points to a diplomacy based on a shrewd trading of interests,not-despite all that disarming courtesy-a naive faith that noxious regimes will show goodwill just because they are treated with respect.
What remains unclear is not whether Mr Obama is clever or tough. It is his basic reading of the world. Does he see China more as a rival than an ally? Too soon to say. Is Afghanistan winnable? Watch that review. Is Palestine solvable? Mrs Clinton’s recent visit,showing sympathy but changing no policy (Hamas remains beyond the pale),leaves the question dangling. Will he risk pre-emption against Iran or does he believe it can be contained? The mullahs would love to know.
The first big clue to Mr Obama’s instincts may come in his treatment of Russia. A few months ago it looked as if the NATO meeting in April would take place in the shadow of a Russia still in macho mode after the Georgia war and confident of bobbing to riches on oil and gas. To its own surprise,Russia is now a casualty of the world recession.
This does not make Americas policy simpler. A Russia with a wrecked economy may become even less congenial. Mrs Clinton speaks of managing differences where they persist,while standing firm on principles and vital interests. But what if interests and principles collide? America says Russia has no right to bully neighbours such as Georgia and Ukraine. But Russia can offer vital help on Iran. So far,Mr Obama has not had to confront these hard choices. Soon he will.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2009