Prince Charming

Obama thinks other countries will do what he wants because he’s friendly and isn’t George W. Bush. After six months, it’s clear this assumption is completely wrong.

When the Obama administration uses the term "reset" in foreign policy, it can have one of two meanings.

The first definition implies a careful review of American policies undertaken by past administrations, most notably that of George W. Bush, to assess their utility and feasibility. For instance, plans to deploy a missile-defense system in Eastern Europe are under review, especially to determine whether existing technologies can deliver what was promised (an effective shield against the launch of a rogue ballistic missile). In political terms, a "reset" also provides political cover should the Obama team decide to take a different course of action than one endorsed by the Bush administration.

The second definition, however, is not turning out according to plan. Despite abundant warnings, there seems to have been a sense that the departure of George W. Bush from the presidency would automatically clear away any opposition to U.S. initiatives. Barack Obama would generate trust, leading foreign governments to again accept American leadership.

But trust is a difficult commodity to regenerate.

It is very true that European, Middle Eastern and Eurasian governments have all welcomed the change of tone emanating from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and Foggy Bottom. Dialogues have been started. But the reality of 2009 is that other states are no longer willing to "ante up" first.

Take the president's meeting with Saudi King Abdullah. Laura Rozen reported in Foreign Policy that Obama did not make much headway because the attitude in Riyadh was, "Why do more? We did that and got nothing." In other words, let's see what the new team in the White House is prepared to commit to before we make any more concessions. This also seems to be the Russian attitude. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin still believes that he made a series of unilateral concessions back in 2001 and 2002 to the United States, trusting President Bush would undertake reciprocal gestures. Today, Moscow is in far less of a mood to make the first move. Ditto Germany's unwillingness to send troops to Afghanistan in advance of their own elections; India's refusal to consider binding carbon limits.

Part of the problem is that other governments are waiting to see how much influence President Obama has over Congress to push his foreign-policy agenda, especially if it clashes with parochial interests of specific congressmen. The president, when in Moscow, promised to work for Russia's graduation from the Jackson-Vanik provisions. Obama has majorities in both houses of Congress-will he spend some of his political capital getting Russia released from the amendment? After all, Bush promised Putin the same thing, at a time when his party also had control of Congress-and nothing happened. How much domestic pain the United States is willing to absorb as part of the effort to get a new climate-change agreement in place is also being closely watched.

Getting new foreign-policy dialogues started-especially on the Middle East-are momentous achievements in and of themselves. But agreeing to talk is just the beginning. The president's foreign-policy team will have to talk to Americans about why they believe such changes are important to secure American global leadership, and how they think that the inevitable compromises-with India and China on emissions, for instance-will enhance U.S. peace and prosperity.

David Rothkopf has warned what happens when "the president is the policy." Changing the tone is not going to be enough.

 

Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.