- The Washington Times - Monday, November 10, 2008




In winning over 50 percent of the popular vote, President-elect Barack Obama can claim a popular mandate, but in order to unify the nation and its position abroad he must govern from the center of the American political spectrum. Doing so will not be easy, as Americans remain divided on many foreign policy concerns and pressure to live up to huge international expectations grows.

Overall, the 2008 election was void of real debate on foreign policy, with both candidates offering more rhetoric than substance. U.S. foreign policy now requires more realism and results and less rhetoric. The world today is marked by newly emerging geographical centers of power, particularly in the developing world, coupled by the rise of non-state actors (such as NGOs, multinational corporations, and terrorist groups) and newly emerging non-geographical centers of power, particularly virtual centers of power, such as the realm of cyberspace. Multitasking in a multicentric world remains an absolute priority.

The comparisons between JFK and Mr. Obama are inevitable, but the times are completely different. Today’s threats are not just conventional but asymmetric and non-traditional. Few disagree on the need to upgrade America’s image abroad but expectations may prove unrealistic, at least for the immediate future. Mr. Obama’s international honeymoon is unlikely to last long and America’s foreign policy challenges will, if anything, only grow more complex.

A key question throughout the campaign was Mr. Obama’s preparedness in dealing with critical foreign policy challenges, but the status quo begs a broader question, that is, whether America possesses a foreign policy establishment able to deal with the challenges of the 21st century. Much of it still remains grounded in Cold War mode, and many of its elite struggle to grasp contemporary realities. The Manichean black-and-white, us-versus-them approach is surprisingly prevalent across the political spectrum, much more than most would like to admit.

In the foreign policy realm, it is essential that President-elect Obama directly engage the American public and bridge the widening gap between elected officials and citizens. He must explain America’s challenges analytically and not just rhetorically. For too long, politicians and media have underestimated the appetite and ability of ordinary Americans to participate in the foreign policy process.

Simply put, it is time to move beyond campaign mode and encounter the foreign policy realities and challenges head on.

This month’s G-20 summit to address the global economic crisis in Washington must provide the president-elect with an opportunity to seize the diplomatic initiative two months before his inauguration. Ultimately, the extent of the president-elect’s participation in the summit is determined by Mr. Bush. The demands and dangers of the global economic crisis require statesmanship. Mr. Bush must rise above the political fray and allow Mr. Obama a significant role and necessary visibility.

It is essential for the president-elect to consolidate and nurture existing relationships, particularly with European allies, and cultivate greater ties with new strategic partners, especially the emerging powers of the developing world. Forging better relations with states such as Turkey in the broader Middle East, Brazil in Latin America, South Africa and Nigeria in sub-Saharan Africa, will strengthen U.S. interests abroad and are likely to leave a less visible footprint.

Afghanistan not only requires a greater and more efficient allocation of U.S. and allied resources and troops, but convincing European publics of the importance of the international mission. No matter how committed certain European leaders may be, they are limited in what they can deliver without greater public support. Mr. Obama must use his new diplomatic capital and goodwill to convince all European leaders and, more importantly, European publics to commit to a long-term presence in Afghanistan.

With respect to Iran, much depends upon the results of Iran’s presidential election in June and the willingness of the supreme leader to engage in serious talks to reduce tensions and reach an accord, perhaps a comprehensive agreement, that will include the nuclear issue. In Iraq, realities on the ground will ultimately determine if and when reduction of troops takes place. Reduction must be based on rational and pragmatic decision-making, together with U.S. military leaders and the Iraqi government, and must not be determined by political convenience and ideological conviction in the United States.

Mr. Obama is inheriting leadership of a global power with immense internal and external challenges. He must seize this historic opportunity as president of all Americans, and with all Americans, to confront these challenges in a spirit of cooperation at home and collaboration abroad.

Marco Vicenzino is a foreign affairs analyst and director of the Global Strategy Project. He is also a fellow of the Foreign Policy Association and strategic adviser to the Afghanistan World Foundation.



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