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Friday, 20 November 2009

20 November 2009

When you were at school, did you ever want to be friends with someone who just didn’t want to be your friend? However nice you were to them, they simply ignored you?

Now, I wouldn’t dream of comparing Barack Obama to a friendless school-child – after all, he’s probably one of the most popular men in the world, and a former Harvard law professor as well – but he doesn’t seem to be having too much luck at the moment making new friends among the people who count.

Iran, China, Cuba – you name it, he’s tried to be friendly. But wherever he goes, whomever he talks to, they all seem to be disciples of the 19th century British statesman Lord Palmerston: “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”

Take Iran, for example: what do its leaders think are their nation’s eternal and perpetual interests? To do what Washington (and, to be fair, many other governments too) wants them to do? Or to plough on with what looks to many like a secret nuclear weapons programme in order to emerge as a regional nuclear power?

Or take China. Where do its interests lie? In forming a strategic alliance with the US, or with continuing its economic development while keeping a firm lid on political pluralism?

If you were sitting in Beijing, or Tehran, or even Pyongyang, and the message came from Washington: “Hey, we’ve got a new guy in charge, and he wants to be friends”, what would your immediate reaction be?

Would it be: “Oh, that’s nice, let’s tell him we want to be friends too”, or would it be: “Hmm, how can we get something out of this?”

I don’t want to over-simplify: it is perfectly possible, of course, for leaders to act in what they perceive to be their national interest and also to form alliances, or friendships, with former adversaries. But Palmerston’s view was that it’s the interests that come first, not the friendships.

Now, if you’re the man in the White House – and you passionately believe that it should be possible to find common ground even with former adversaries – it can be a challenge to work out what to do if your faith in the power of shared interests isn’t reciprocated.

What do you do about Iran, for example, if they seem to be stringing you along, saying that they might, one day, like to be your friend, but not just yet. What do you do about China, which seems to be making a lot of the right noises about reducing carbon gas emissions, but – again – not just yet.

“To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war,” was Churchill’s too-often quoted maxim. But if the other lot don’t fancy jaw-jaw, do you perhaps need a Plan B that stops short of war-war?

The Obama line is that it’s still early days. It takes time to create a new global diplomatic discourse; no one should expect new friendships to be formed overnight. And the White House can claim some success: there’s little doubt now that there will be a useful US-Russia nuclear stockpile reduction agreement soon, and Moscow seems to be closer to Washington than it used to be on the idea of some tougher sanctions against Iran.

We’ll be returning to some of these questions in January, when we’ll be taking stock of Obama’s foreign policy achievements on the first anniversary of his inauguration, with the help of some of Washington’s leading public policy pundits.

More on that nearer the time, but meanwhile, just a very brief toot on the trumpet: I wrote a month ago that I didn’t think Tony Blair was going to be chosen as President of the EU Council. And last night, he wasn’t.

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