Better Policies. Better Future.

Obama Foreign Policy

Armen Kharazian
January 20, 2009

1. The Obama administration has pledged to conduct a strong, but consultative foreign policy, driven by both principles and pragmatism, and aimed at restoring U.S. leadership, reputation and influence on the world stage.

2. The new Administration has demonstrated a strong understanding of the centrality of the global security and development agenda to the success of American foreign policy. It supports the strengthening of the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), the ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and renewed negotiations on the Fissile Materials Cut-off Treaty (FMCT). It also supports active U.S. involvement in international efforts to address global climate change, and has pledged to make every effort to ensure the success of this year's principal event in that regard -- the Climate Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark in December 2009.

3. There is strong bi-partisan support in Washington for the extension of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START-I) with Russia. START-I is the cornerstone of the U.S.-Russian strategic relationship, and a central element in the global security and stability architecture. The Treaty is due to expire on December 5, 2009. The Obama administration has publicly affirmed its strong interest in extending the Treaty, regardless of any disagreements with Russia on other issues of mutual interest or concern. Russia, however, has linked that prospect with U.S. plans for missile defense infrastructure in Europe, and NATO enlargement -- issues on which it expects the U.S. to take positions that better address Russian concerns. Interestingly, neither issue came up during the confirmation hearing last week in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for Secretary of State-nominee Hillary Clinton -- a sign that the Administration may well be consciously avoiding issues, and probably also action, that might jeopardize any forthcoming U.S. effort to work with the Russians on strategic arms control. Along with extending START, the Administration has is also interested in working with Russia towards further reductions, with initial target levels as low as 1,000 accountable warheads each. A U.S.-Russian understanding on the extension of START and its further development might have a profound impact on European and Eurasian security affairs, particularly as regards missile defense and NATO enlargement. Early contours of any such understanding should to be expected to emerge around July-August 2009.

4. The new Administration is willing to engage in direct diplomatic dialogue with Iran, to address concerns with respect to both proliferation, and regional security. A successful effort with Iran might facilitate prospects for peace between Israel and its neighbors, also having a positive effect on U.S. strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan. Leading members of the Democratic party have encouraged the Administration to think about the interconnectedness of these issues, and seek comprehensive solutions to them. It has been suggested that the Administration is considering the possible opening of a U.S. Interests Section in Tehran, and accreditation of an Ambassador to Damascus. In addition, members of the Administration have acknowledged that there is a policy review underway presently regarding Iran.

5. Energy security, particularly U.S. dependence on foreign oil and Europe's gas supplies, stands very high on the Obama Administration' list of foreign policy priorities. There are plans to establish a special Energy Security Coordinator position within the State Department, with broad mandate, compared to similar offices in the past that were established to deal with specific regional or infrastructure issues. The Administration looks forward to actively participating in the Americas' Summit in Trinidad in April 2009, with focus on partnerships in energy and technologies, taking that event as an opportunity to work on solutions for stability and security in the Western Hemisphere. Considering that participants in the Summit will also include Brazil and Venezuela, the meeting in Trinidad may have important implications for world energy affairs. Speaking of new policy initiatives in the Western Hemisphere, it is also important that the new Administration is considering easing certain restrictions on Cuba, which too will contribute to the hemispheric stability and development.

6. Overcoming global economic crisis and reforming the international financial system and institutions shall be a critical priority for the Administration. A principal opportunity in that regard will arise at the G-20 (world's 20 largest economies) Summit in London on April 2, 2009, where the U.S. will be working, inter alia, with Russia, China, Brazil and India, to address the crisis and promote consensus on the reform of the international financial system.

7. Counterterrorism, the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, and relations with Pakistan are central to the Administration's foreign policy and its success. The new U.S. leadership has reaffirmed adherence to the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Iraq, and its civilian counterpart -- the Agreement on Friendship and Cooperation between the U.S. and Iraq, and intends to start the withdrawal of combat units from population centers in Iraq in July. The normalization of the situation in Iraq, however, will also depend on the success of confessional and inter-ethnic dialogue in the country, and cooperation from Iraq's neighbors, particularly Iran and Syria, as well as region-wide efforts towards de-escalation and greater stability in the Middle East. As for Pakistan and Afghanistan, the new U.S. leadership views these countries as the central theater for its counter-terrorism effort, and has pledged to work towards developing a more systemic response to the challenges that theater presents. There are reviews pending on U.S. policy regarding Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as Sudan in Africa, and one must expect that in the coming weeks a better articulated policy will emerge as a result of these reviews with respect to each theater, and the region as a whole.

8. From the first day in office, the Administration has vowed to make an urgent and insistent effort towards restoring the U.S. commitment to, and leadership in helping resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. A deficit in such effort has seriously undermined the U.S. national interest in the last few years, in the region, and beyond. This is likely to be the most formidable foreign policy challenge the Obama administration will face, with no easy solutions, but also no lack of understanding of the crucial importance of a consistent, determined U.S. pursuit of such solutions. As one of his first executive orders, the President is expected to announce the appointment of a high-profile presidential envoy to jump-start U.S. peace diplomacy in the Middle East in earnest.

9. The Administration shall seek to renew and further develop relations with Europe -- both traditional allies and new democracies, working within the NATO framework, bilaterally, as well as with the European Union. Washington views these relations, along with relations with its traditional allies in Asia -- Japan, South Korea and Australia. as the linchpin of its global diplomatic and security leadership, and a source of strategic U.S. power in the world.

10. Finally, in the next few years, another important dimension of American foreign policy will evolve around the Administration's effort to secure increased funding for the State Department, expand its role in the U.S. national security and interagency process, and carry out a reform of U.S. foreign assistance strategy, enhancing the role of the USAID, and better integrating the concept of development with traditional diplomacy, to increase the effectiveness of U.S. foreign policy and adapt it to modern needs.

11. Presently, almost all principal aspects of U.S. foreign policy are undergoing some form of review, and may incur changes in the process. In addition, the Administration's new or enhanced policy initiatives will need budgetary justification and support, and can further be identified once the Administration submits its new budget proposals. In that sense, the next few months will be transitional, but very important in the evolution of the principal parameters of the Obama foreign policy.