Henry Kissinger: Obama's Foreign Policy Challenge

Roundup: Historians' Take

The vast diplomatic agenda that the Obama administration has adopted will test its ability to harmonize national priorities such as relations with Iran and North Korea with global and multilateral concerns. President Obama has come into office at a moment of unique opportunity. The economic crisis absorbs the energies of all the major powers; whatever their differences, all need a respite from international confrontation. Overriding challenges such as energy, the environment and proliferation concern them to a considerable degree and in an increasingly parallel way. The possibility of comprehensive solutions is unprecedented.

Obama has launched negotiations on an extraordinary range of subjects. Each has a political as well as a strategic component. Each deals with issues peculiar to itself. Each runs the risk that inherent obstacles could obscure ultimate objectives or that negotiating tactics could warp substance. But the challenges are also closely related. For example, arms control negotiations with Russia will affect Russia's role in the nonproliferation effort with Iran. The strategic dialogue with China will help shape the Korean negotiations. The negotiations will also be affected by perceptions of regional balances -- of the key participants, for Russia, this applies especially to the former Soviet space in Central Asia; for China and the United States, to the political structure of Northeast Asia and the Pacific Rim.

This reality needs to be translated into some operational concept of world order. The administration's approach seems to be pointing toward a sort of concert diplomacy, which existed for some two decades after the Napoleonic Wars, in which groupings of great powers work together to enforce international norms. In that view, American leadership results from the willingness to listen and to provide inspirational affirmations. Common action grows out of shared convictions. Power emerges from a sense of community and is exercised by an allocation of responsibilities related to a country's resources. It is a kind of world order either without a dominating power or in which the potentially dominating power leads through self-restraint.

The economic crisis favors this approach even though there are few examples of sustained operation of such a concert. Typically, members of any grouping reflect an unequal distribution of willingness to run risks, leading to an unequal willingness to allocate efforts on behalf of international order, and hence to the potential veto by the most irresolute. The Obama administration need not choose yet whether to ultimately rely on consensus or equilibrium. But it must fine-tune its national security structure to judge the environment it faces and calibrate its strategy accordingly....

comments powered by Disqus