A Shift to Moderation

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Saturday, February 21, 2009

With President Obama's trip to Canada, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton touring Asia, The Post asked foreign policy experts to assess the expectations on the Obama administration. Below are responses from Danielle Pletka, Daniel P. Serwer, Aaron David Miller, Rick Barton, Karin von Hippel, Shannon Hayden and David Shambaugh.

DANIELLE PLETKA

Vice president, foreign and defense policy studies, at the American Enterprise Institute

It's foolish to expect too much from a maiden voyage overseas. But if we are filled with an unreasoning hope for change, the blame lies at the feet of candidate Barack Obama, who led us to believe his ascent would do miracles for America's global influence. It didn't.

To be fair, few expected that Canada would abandon NAFTA, meet emissions targets or recant a decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. Nor did we expect China to abandon North Korea, Japan to feel comfortable with America's drift from our alliance or North Korea to suddenly embrace disarmament and peace with the South.

Still, there are lessons to be learned. First, know your facts: Hillary Clinton suggested that North Korea restarted reprocessing plutonium only when the Bush administration decided to tear up her husband's Agreed Framework. This is highly misleading; the CIA reckons that North Korea had a nuclear weapon in the 1990s. Second, remember that the neighbors are watching: President Obama was greeted by Canadians seized with fear about the "Buy America" protectionism in the new stimulus package.

The new administration deserves a chance to fulfill our allies' hopes -- and make clear to our adversaries that Obama's team is not hopelessly naive. The first step is ensuring that what we say and do at home is consistent with those goals. Thus far, the administration has faltered slightly, but there is time to set things right.

DANIEL P. SERWER

Vice president for peace and stability operations at the U.S. Institute of Peace

The Obama administration is making a concerted and largely successful effort to change the tone. The president and the secretary of state are being greeted enthusiastically by crowds and leaders who welcome the change in administrations. Certainly, the Canadians were pleased with Obama's anti-protectionist comments as well as the bilateral push on climate change. The South Koreans, Japanese and Indonesians have likewise had reason to be pleased with what they heard.

We've also seen some shift in emphasis -- from military efforts in Iraq to those in Afghanistan, from refusing to talk with Syria and Iran to getting ready to do so, from building missile defenses in Eastern Europe to thinking about how to reduce their impact on Russia's perception of a threat.

It is too soon to expect major changes. Many people below the Cabinet level are not yet in place, the review of Afghanistan-Pakistan policy is still ongoing, and many policies are likely to remain in place. So Obama has made a good start; a new tone has responded to high expectations. But the time is coming for some difficult decisions on issues such as Iran's nuclear ambitions and the parlous relations with Russia and China. Let's hope the goodwill and good judgment last.

AARON DAVID MILLER

Public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; former State Department Arab-Israeli peace negotiator

Three weeks into the Obama administration, the transformational diplomacy of his predecessor is out, and transactional diplomacy is in. The big rhetoric about good, evil and the war on terror is gone. And Obama is picking his spots more carefully. Neither Obama nor Clinton wants to get bogged down in the affairs of small tribes to the east that have a tradition of driving big powers crazy without reaching agreements. Instead, they went to Canada, China and Japan -- places where we have relationships that are working, and that can be tied to fixing America's broken house.

Obama and Clinton have also created an empire of envoys who can develop a process, show the differences from Bush, and, maybe, set up conditions to actually resolve problems. No secretary of state I worked for would have subcontracted hot issues to guys who could have been secretaries of state. On hard issues -- Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Arab-Israeli conflict -- it isn't yet clear whether it is all process or will lead to real change. That will depend on the president's will and skill in taking advantage of the crises and opportunities he will surely confront.

The words are much improved. But there is probably a huge difference between what the world expects from America's foreign policy now and what Obama can deliver.

RICK BARTON, KARIN VON HIPPEL AND SHANNON HAYDEN

Barton and von Hippel are co-directors of the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Hayden is a research assistant with the project.

President Obama has projected an image of competence and reengagement with the rest of the world. He is off to a strong start.

With the appointment of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state and two key special envoys to focus on Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East, the message is: Yes, there will be many strong personalities in the room; the president knows this, has recruited America's best and expects results.

To reestablish America as a trusted great power, the United States needs to listen, learn and lead. Thus far, the report card shows that the Obama administration has:

· Underscored the importance of one of America's closest allies, Canada, with the president's first international trip.

· Acknowledged the growing role of Asia in global affairs with the secretary of state's visit to Japan, Indonesia, Korea and China.

· Demonstrated that the United States will return to its core values by closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.

All of these moves are welcome. Still, the most effective element so far of Obama's foreign policy is that he has not made any rash foreign policy decisions and has focused instead on pressing economic problems -- which, of course, will have a global impact. Obama understands what needs attention and is moving the United States in a constructive direction.

DAVID SHAMBAUGH

Director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution

Hillary Clinton has said she is on a listening tour throughout East Asia, and she has won plaudits on her previous stops in Tokyo, Jakarta and Seoul. But in Beijing, it is the Chinese who will be doing the listening. The Chinese government wishes to size up the new Obama administration's China policy -- and Clinton herself, whom they view somewhat suspiciously from her presidential campaign rhetoric. Does Washington view Beijing as a genuine global collaborator -- in a "comprehensive partnership," as Clinton has indicated -- or will it continue the "strategic hedging" policy of the Bush administration?

Throughout her trip, Clinton has spoken on a wide range of issues on the bilateral agenda -- from the global financial crisis to climate change to human rights. But Clinton should keep the discussions on a more strategic plane. The Chinese always believe that it is easier to work on specific issues if common trust and mutual understanding are established first. If Clinton can assure her interlocutors in Beijing that the United States truly sees China as a global partner, and not as a rival, she will find far greater cooperation on the issues that really matter.


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