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Sunday, 21 December 2008

19 December 2008

So, will Barack Obama change the world? Er, probably not.

Will he radically change US foreign policy? Well, maybe he will, but there again, maybe he won’t.

If you heard our programme from here last night, you’ll have heard four of Washington’s most respected foreign policy analysts discussing the likely future shape of US foreign policy once Obama takes office next month. And what struck me about them was how uncertain they were. (If you missed the programme, it’s available on the website, as is an extended version, including a question and answer session with our invited audience at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.)

Will Obama keep his promise to pull US combat troops out of Iraq within 16 months of moving into the White House? Probably, yes.

Will he make any headway in reviving the Middle East peace process? Probably, no.

Will he sign up to a new global agreement on reducing carbon gas emissions to combat climate change? Possibly, but it’s far from certain.

And so it goes on. During the Presidential election campaign, Obama promised “change you can believe in”. But beyond the rhetoric, there weren’t that many concrete policy proposals, especially in the field of foreign policy. Which is why even the best informed analysts here really have little clear idea what he’s planning to do.

And here’s the key issue: the over-riding preoccupation of the incoming administration will be how to revive the economy. Peace in the Middle East, forging a new relationship with Moscow, breathing new life into nuclear non-proliferation – all that may have to wait.

So what should we expect? Well, the rhetoric will certainly change: you won’t hear so much about the US ending tyranny and spreading democracy around the world. There’ll be more of an emphasis on negotiations, and on building international alliances. But will it be, in the words of a New York Times columnist,“continuity we can believe in”, or, in the words of another New York Times columnist, “a sweeping shift in foreign policy”?

Our panellists couldn’t agree. Is a change of tone the same as a change of policy? Or do US national interests always eventually over-ride Presidential ambitions? We’re about to find out – and the answer could well shape the world we live in.

Just a word about next week: on Christmas Eve, we’ll have a special pre-recorded programme in which we’ll be looking at the arguments for and against global population control; there’ll be no programme on Christmas Day, but we’ll be back as usual on Boxing Day. I’ll be taking a short break, so no newsletter from me next week …

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