Shadow Government

Is Obama up to the challenge of a dangerous world?

By Dan Twining Much commentary on President Obama’s new administration has focused on the warm reaction of American friends and allies overseas — especially in Europe — to his character, temperament, and style. This is all to the good. Polling by the German Marshall Fund and others consistently reveals how much Americans want to be ...

By Dan Twining

Much commentary on President Obama’s new administration has focused on the warm reaction of American friends and allies overseas — especially in Europe — to his character, temperament, and style. This is all to the good. Polling by the German Marshall Fund and others consistently reveals how much Americans want to be liked, perhaps in order to vindicate our own sense of exceptionalism. And securing U.S. foreign policy goals by consent, made easier when the United States is held in high regard overseas, is always preferable to relying on coercion.

But the track records of previous U.S. presidents who have kept America safe and built a more secure, more hopeful world reveal another necessary trait for foreign policy success: an ability to instill fear and respect for our power among America’s adversaries. Judging by the events of the past few weeks, beginning with what Steve Biegun correctly labeled "Moscow’s clumsy and ill-timed blast" at America’s new president, even as he was being sworn in, many U.S. competitors abroad appear to be testing President Obama to see how much they can get away with. 

The White House’s focus on enacting the stimulus package to get the domestic economy going is admirable. But the new team is already learning that the world won’t wait for America to sort out its domestic problems — and that being liked by our friends abroad does not in itself render U.S. interests more secure if potential rivals mistake American congeniality for weakness or lack of resolve.

In the last 24 hours alone, Russia appears to have pressured Kyrgyzstan to withdraw its consent for the operation of the Manas air base, used for both the projection of U.S. combat air power into Afghanistan and for the supply of international forces fighting there. The Taliban blew up a bridge in the Khyber region of Pakistan along a key supply route for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, the latest in a continuing series of attacks on U.S. forces and supply lines.  Rejecting President Obama’s proffered "open hand" with a "clenched fist," Iran, employing the same technology used for a multi-stage ballistic missile launch, sent a satellite into orbit in what the New York Times correctly labeled "a challenge for Obama."Elsewhere, the Washington Post tells us, "With Obama in the White House, North Korea Steps up Big Talk," with Pyongyang warning of "unavoidable war" against U.S. ally South Korea and preparing to test an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting Alaska. 

Warnings against wobbliness are also emanating from American friends. Saudi Arabia has revealed that 14 Saudis released from U.S. custody at Guantanamo Bay have returned to active terrorist operations, raising hard questions for the Obama administration about what to do with dangerous detainees as part of the process of closing down the high-security prison. American allies in Canada and Europe are up in arms about the "Buy America" provisions in the House-passed stimulus bill, an insidious form of financial protectionism condemned as "folly" by the Financial Times’ venerable (and normally unexcitable) Martin Wolf: "For a country that must export its way out of its slump, this is mad. For one that made an open global economy the keystone of its foreign policy for two generations, it is vandalism. Is this the change we must believe in?"

The world is a tough and dangerous place. Consent — having other countries cooperate willingly with us because they like us —  is always superior to coercion as part of an American foreign policy premised on "smart power." By the same token, deterring conflict is always superior to actively waging it. 

But deterring our rivals’ base instincts requires strength, fortitude, and a refusal to be bullied by lesser powers. President Obama must marry the "open hand" and the "clenched fist" as deftly as Teddy Roosevelt combined his soft-spokenness with America’s "big stick." Moreover, we need all the friends we can get, which is why poking at them with "Buy America" restrictions is so misguided.

America’s adversaries appear emboldened. If our country cannot be loved in Moscow, Tehran, Pyongyang, or among the leadership councils of the Taliban, it would certainly help to be feared.

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