Friday, 27 May 2011

20 May 2011

How should America respond to what’s been happening in the Arab world? Or, to use President Obama’s words in his major Middle East policy speech last night, how should it respond “in a way that advances our values and strengthens our security”?

Well, let’s take “advancing values” first. Support people demanding self-determination? Yes. Demand that tyrants stand down? Yes again. Press for freedom of expression, and of religion? Ditto. Oppose violence and repression? Of course.

So, how about “strengthening security”? This is where it gets a bit trickier. “We must acknowledge,” said Mr Obama, “that a strategy based solely upon the narrow pursuit of [US security] interests will not fill an empty stomach or allow someone to speak their mind.”

And he repeated what he said in his Cairo speech two years ago: “We have a stake not just in the stability of nations, but in the self-determination of individuals.”

Which may be an admirable sentiment in theory, but can be rather more difficult to put into practice. (Is it, for example, why there was not a single reference to Saudi Arabia in the entire speech? How much public support is expressed in Washington for Saudi citizens, men and women alike, to be granted the right of self-determination?)

According to Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, who used to be an adviser to President Bush’s first secretary of state, Colin Powell: “The battle between realists and idealists is the fundamental fault line of the American foreign-policy debate.”

Realists will tell you that sometimes a hard-headed assessment of national interests has to take precedence over advancing values. Idealists will insist that you can do both – safeguard national interests while remaining true to your core values.

So which is President Obama? Some analysts argue that while he often uses the words that make him sound like an idealist, his actions tend to be those of a realist.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, for example, who was President Carter’s national security adviser in the 1970s, and who more recently helped advise Obama during his campaign for the presidency, says: “I greatly admire his insights and understanding. (But) I don’t think he really has a policy that’s implementing those insights and understandings … He doesn’t strategise. He sermonises.”

Barack Obama is now more than half way through his Presidential term. (Whether he is granted a second term will be decided by American voters in November next year.) And the experts are still searching for a definition of what his foreign policy vision really is.

“We must proceed with a sense of humility,” he said last night. “There will be times when our short term interests do not align perfectly with our long term vision …” Are those the words of a realist, or an idealist?

One of the biggest questions facing US foreign policy-makers now is how to adapt their thinking to take account of the emergence of new, and increasingly assertive, regional powers. India and China, of course, but also countries like Brazil and Turkey, both of which have begun to demonstrate their own foreign policy interests.

Should the US sit back and let them take centre stage? Is “leading from behind”, the new buzz phrase in Washington, becoming the new foreign policy strategy? It seems to be the strategy of choice in Libya, but can it be applied elsewhere?

Hillary Clinton said something that intrigued me as she introduced President Obama ahead of his speech: “We have seen that in a changing world, America’s leadership is more essential than ever, but that we often must lead in new and innovative ways.”

I’d love to know more about these “new and innovative ways” -- and perhaps I’ll find out next Tuesday, when I’ll be in Washington to present a special edition of the programme in which we’ll be discussing exactly how the US sees its role in this rapidly changing world.

Is it still a world leader, or does the “humility” that President Obama referred to last night imply that under his leadership at least, the US will tend more often to let others move out in front, just as it did over Libya?

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