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Shared interests define Obama's world

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By Scott Wilson
Monday, November 2, 2009

President Obama is applying the same tools to international diplomacy that he once used as a community organizer on Chicago's South Side, constructing appeals to shared interests and attempting to bring the government's conduct in line with its ideals.

Obama's approach to the world as a community of nations, more alike than different in outlook and interest, has elevated America's standing abroad and won him the Nobel Peace Prize. But on the farthest-reaching U.S. foreign policy challenges, he is struggling to translate his own popularity into American influence, even with allies that have celebrated his break from the Bush administration's emphasis on military strength, unilateral action and personal chemistry.

Conservatives think Obama is undermining U.S. power abroad by failing to recognize the degree to which countries, whether allies or adversaries, are immune to appeals to shared interests. And critics from opposite ends of the political spectrum say Obama has too often muted his public support for American ideals -- notably human rights and democracy -- in his pursuit of common goals.

The limits of Obama's cool, interests-based approach are visible in Afghanistan, where European allies continue to resist sending additional combat troops to fight an increasingly unpopular war, and in his attempts to assemble a common front against Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program. In Afghanistan, his efforts to reinvigorate the relationships neglected by the previous administration have yielded few tangible results on the battlefield. In Iran, months of careful, culturally sensitive diplomacy have met with a recalcitrance that U.S. conservatives say will never change.

"He's said that from the very beginning we're going to reverse the perception that the United States is arrogant, unilateral and doesn't want any one else's assistance," said William Cohen, the former Republican senator from Maine who served as defense secretary during the Clinton administration. "He's said to others, 'We want your help -- now what can you do?' Now let's see what will be done."

Bridging interests

Obama's commitment to work within a set of international organizations and treaties is an echo of the last sitting U.S. president to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Woodrow Wilson, except that in Obama's world the United States is more of an equal partner with other nations and less of an unquestioned leader.

As a community organizer, Obama worked to identify the common interests of neighborhoods suffering through the economic aftermath of plant closings and of the politicians elected to represent them. The role requires patience -- a word used consistently by his advisers in regard to reviving Middle East peace talks or reaching out to Iran -- and cultivating a lower profile than the other parties involved.

"There are those who doubt whether true international cooperation is possible given inevitable differences among nations," Obama told an ebullient outdoor audience in Prague in April as he called for a world free of nuclear weapons. "But make no mistake: We know where that road leads. When nations and people allow themselves to be defined by their differences, the gulf between them widens."

The speech was the first of four addresses that effectively won Obama the Nobel Peace Prize last month for creating what committee members called "a new climate in international politics." In an address to the U.N. General Assembly, Obama told the gathered leaders: "Like all of you, my responsibility is to act in the interest of my nation and my people, and I will never apologize for defending those interests.

"But it is my deeply held belief that in the year 2009 -- more than at any point in human history -- the interests of nations and peoples are shared."

On some of the most challenging foreign policy issues that Obama faces, however, his appeal to the shared goals of economic prosperity, national security and a healthy environment has been overtaken by the stronger pull of national interests. This has been true in his dealings with allies and adversaries alike.

During his April trip to Europe, Obama told the Group of 20 summit that he "came here to listen and not to lecture" at a time of economic crisis. But he was unable to secure pledges of additional stimulus spending from such economic powers as France and Germany, historically fearful of inflation.


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