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Obama Era Confronts A New World

Author: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
December 29, 2009
Project Syndicate

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The basic outlines of Barack Obama's approach to foreign policy became clear in 2009. His Administration believes the US should talk with other governments even if it disagrees profoundly with their character. He prefers acting with other countries to going it alone. And he has shifted the focus of US foreign policy from what countries do within their borders to how they act beyond them.

All of this differentiates Obama from his immediate predecessor, George W. Bush, whose administration branded selected countries as evil and mostly refused to deal with them; often rejected co-operation with other governments, lest the US find itself constrained; and sought to transform other countries, rather than to influence their actions. Any parallels between Obama's foreign policy and that of Bush are more with the father, America's 41st president, George H. W. Bush.

Diplomacy, of course, should not be viewed as a favour or concession that signals "softness". Obama rightly recognises that it is an important tool of foreign policy, to be employed when it promises results that are more favourable than the alternatives.

He is also correct that acting in concert with others is almost always desirable. The challenges that most define this era - nuclear proliferation, terrorism, global climate change, and pandemic disease - can be managed only collectively. Moreover, the reality is that the US is now too stretched economically and militarily to succeed by relying solely on its own resources.

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