By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, December 14, 2008
The power of the presidential jawbone atrophied under his two immediate predecessors. But Barack Obama has shown that he will employ subtle threats, brazen promises and words at large as his ambassadors in pursuit of personal and national goals.
It is not a matter of being good at speechifying, which Obama certainly is. It is a matter of calculating -- at which Obama also excels -- the precise effect of words unleashed in presidential addresses, news conferences and on-the-hoof occasions. They all shape the battlegrounds on which a national leader must fight.
As president-elect, Obama concentrates on the immediate economic challenges overwhelming Washington. For an example of his skillful alternation of verbal persuasion and coercion, check out a video clip or text of his admonitions to U.S. automakers on last weekend's "Meet the Press."
In office, he should exercise this talent in foreign affairs, and quickly. He should schedule a major address that will demonstrate American willingness to take the lead in achieving two related goals: reducing the dangers that nuclear weapons pose for all nations and improving U.S. relations with Russia.
Both are long-term and uncertain projects that must be handled with great care. But making clear his intentions to pursue them from the outset will enable Obama to gain increased international support and understanding for more immediate goals such as dealing with Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan and the turbulent area on Russia's borders known as the "Near Abroad."
George W. Bush never cottoned to that approach. He habitually painted opponents into corners from which he offered no escape, and he treated allies on "take it or leave it" terms. Bill Clinton's ability to jawbone opponents and supporters alike suffered from an imbalance in the other direction and from the impaired credibility that dogged his presidency.
But an excellent model -- and a promising vehicle -- is available to Obama to change this state of affairs: John F. Kennedy's much-heralded commencement address at American University in June 1963. It is worth rereading, and rewriting, for our times.
Kennedy's endorsement of "general and complete disarmament designed to take place by stages" provided impetus to a partial ban on nuclear testing. And he went on, speaking as if in sorrow and not in anger, to advise Americans not to overreact to a spate of hostile actions and paranoia by the Kremlin. "It is discouraging," he continued, "to think that their leaders may actually believe what their propagandists write."
It is advice worth emphasizing anew as Vladimir Putin blusters on in rancid tones about American perfidy in Georgia and the supposedly threatening missile defenses in Europe. Challenging Putin to join the United States in scaling back the deployment, development and size of nuclear arsenals -- to commit to "general and complete disarmament designed to take place by stages" -- should be an early policy step by the incoming Obama administration.
Appropriate vehicles for such an Obama effort include the Nuclear Security Project, proposed in 2007 by George Shultz, Sam Nunn, Bill Perry and Henry Kissinger, and the parallel Global Zero initiative, which aspires to become a worldwide movement.
Shultz and Nunn have been particularly active in pressing world leaders on the idea of abandoning nuclear weapons -- with admittedly mixed results. When they tried out the idea on Putin in a private meeting in July 2007, the Russian scoffed at the proposal as just another U.S. trick to weaken his country, according to two accounts of the meeting.
And in his welcome to the Global Zero meeting in Paris last week, Gérard Errera, the secretary general of France's foreign ministry, elegantly coupled his country's commendable record of downsizing its nuclear arsenal to a clear intention not to give it up totally for a long time -- if ever.
So Obama has much room for maneuver in taking on leadership of the nuclear disarmament movement and perhaps much to gain in fortifying the U.S. position on limiting Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions.
The room for a multilateral solution to the Iranian deadlock may have increased last week with a decision by the European Union to join the funding of a nuclear fuel bank to be administered by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
This idea, which had already attracted funding from the United States, is a promising brainchild of Nunn's Nuclear Threat Initiative and is also backed financially by billionaire investor Warren Buffett -- a man who calculates his dollars as carefully as Obama calculates words.
Timing is everything. Seize the day, Mr. President-elect.