The Essence of Obama's Diplomatic Brand
Not since the heady summits of the Cold War has an international conclave better reflected an American president's governing style than this week's nuclear security summit in Washington, D.C. It's too early to assess the concrete deliverables -- "deliverables" being the usual measures of success. Whether you support or oppose the president's policy, the NSS distilled Obama's brand of diplomacy to its essence. There are several principles, listed below, that President Obama and his team believe are foundational. I'm not assessing whether they'll work. The Middle East peace process will get better, or it won't; Iran will get the bomb, or it won't. We'll know soon enough whether Obama's principles can effectively support his short- and long-term national security goals.
1. American Exceptionalism, Obama-Style. Never before has the issue of preventing nuclear terrorism been treated with this kind of urgency and international cooperation. American leadership was essential to galvanize and systematize action. Previous presidents, including George W. Bush, had taken laudatory measures to recognize and contain the threat, but Obama lifted it up to the level of world leaders meeting face to face. And world leaders took it seriously, recognizing that Obama had put American political will behind the summit.
2. Not Everything Is Zero Sum. Obama has been criticized for adopting a Scowcrowftian approach to foreign policy, one that's premised on a recognition that nations share common interests more often than traditional international relations theories would suggest. On nuclear security, the end state is not zero sum for most every stakeholder; it redounds to everyone's benefit to secure loose nuclear material and increase cooperation given the global interconnectedness of this particular security problem. There's no need to be adversarial and confrontational.
3. Bringing More Countries Into The Circle. Obama thinks that broadening the conversation is critical to making what he likes to call "transformative" progress. Hence his preference for the G-20 over the G-8 on economic matters and now the -- well, call them the S-47 on nuclear security matters. A side benefit: treating smaller countries as if they were larger countries -- or treating them with the same respect as larger countries -- pays secondary dividends. Obama's "pull-asides" with several leaders, including some he'd never met, are where seeds are germinated. Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kazakhstan are fundamental players -- why not bring them into the circle at the highest levels?
4. It's Not Personal, It's About Respect. Obama has been criticized for not cultivating the close relationships with allies that President George W. Bush had with Angela Merkel of Germany or Vladimir Putin of Russia or Tony Blair of England. Maybe that's true. But it's also true that those relationships did not prevent the most significant rift in transatlantic relationship in decades. Bush assumed a position of direct strength, not deference, when he met with leaders. Obama has been decidedly deferential, which, in the traditional binary way the media covers foreign policy, allegedly suggests weakness. From Obama's perspective, deference is both strategic and is demanded by the goals he sets out. Treating countries as equals foists certain obligations upon them. It helps leaders deal with internal politics. Year one, Obama was the star, and wasn't seen as a heavyweight, even by some allies. Year two is different: he's charted a course on legacy problems (Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Middle East peace), so the world knows where he stands. And he's begun to put a stamp on his own pet projects, like international development and nuclear arms control. His identity as a world leader is coming into focus.
5. Malleability. With the caveat that it's hard to judge a foreign policy strategy because the world continues to evolve, Obama's getting a lot of guff about early failures on Iran and about the Middle East. On Iran, Obama's trying to course correct a blunder: some world leaders can't be treated as equals. Countries can, though, and Obama continues his personal outreach to Iranians, and his show of respect -- criticized here in the states -- for Iran's sovereignty. Can Obama prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon? That's the benchmark, and a fair one. It may be too late for tough sanctions to work, although, from the standpoint of Team Obama, the fact of sanctions is more important, ultimately, than the content of sanctions. Iran wants respect, and with China and Russia signing on to, well, something, Iran is isolated. Obama has been successful in figuring out a way for Russia and China to believe that sanctions are in THEIR best interest, too: using the international framework of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.