Deconstructing Obama’s foreign policy

Since coming to office as the anti-Bush, Obama swapped the governing principle of “either you are with us or you are with the terrorists," for engagement, cooperation and rebuilding trust.

Obama laid out his blueprint for a post-globalized world in his Prague speech in April 2009. The headlines were all about his vision of a world without nuclear weapons, but in that speech, he spoke directly to North Korea and Iran — dropping the Bush “regime change” mantra that had fed their leaders’ paranoia. Play by the international rules, and you’ll be OK, he said. But if you violate them, you will be punished.

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He framed the challenge from North Korea’s nuclear blackmail and from the Iranian nuclear program as a problem for us all. He spoke about pursuing “constructive” relations with Russia, which have now paid dividends in terms of raising diplomatic pressure on Iran and strengthening cooperation on Afghanistan.

That is the real importance of the still-to-be-ratified New START Treaty, which has changed the quality of the U.S. relationship with Russia. However, in the Prague speech, Obama did not mention China, which is now the focus of the next big push by the administration and the nexus of the geo-political fault line that runs from North Korea to Pakistan.

The problem with China is that it doesn’t do diplomacy. It plays hardball when it comes to Tibet and Taiwan, not to mention its currency and human rights. Its bottomless energy needs have led to a new age of Chinese imperialism in Africa, Asia and Latin America. It is pursuing strategic goals, which might not coincide with those of the U.S. on North Korea, even though it is a member of the Six Party disarmament process, which also includes South Korea, Japan and Russia.

Enter Bill Richardson. As he did on previous visits to Pyongyang, and like other unofficial envoys before him, he will return with priceless intelligence on the direction of the regime. So Obama is switching from a multilateral channel to a bilateral one. It would not surprise me if the administration uses the same tactics on Iran — there exists the possibility of direct talks even within the existing multilateral framework for negotiations with Tehran on its nuclear program.

Right now, Obama could really do with a foreign policy win after the “shellacking” of the midterms. It has eluded him on the Middle East, and Afghanistan looks dicey. On the Hill, Obama faces urgent questions about his Iran policy from senior Republicans who are starting to beat the drums of war.

But over the last two years, the administration has been building international bridges. My reading of the WikiLeaks cables is that America remains the “indispensable nation,” as Madeleine Albright put it. If Obama can keep the glue on his international coalitions, we will take the next steps together.