Obama's Shift on US Foreign Policy
The foreign ministers of NATO states gathered Thursday in Brussels to discuss the pressing geopolitical topics of the day: Russia, Afghanistan and Iran. For some, it was a summit filled with hope; for others, intense fear; for all, groundbreaking change.
At the summit, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton first leaked — and then openly announced — that she would like to invite Iran to an international conference on March 31 to map out a strategy for Afghanistan. This marks the first real sign from the Obama administration that it intends to follow through with its pledge to extend a hand to Iran, should Tehran “unclench its fist” — beginning with a multilateral setting in which Iran’s regional influence would be recognized.
Although this is clearly a break from Washington’s past pattern of dealings with Tehran, it should not come as a surprise. The toppling of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001 and of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in 2003 presented the Iranians and the Americans with a menu of mutual interests, particularly in shaping post-Baathist Iraq. Relations over the years have been rocky (to say the least), but various bouts of behind-the-scenes cooperation have brought them to a point that it’s now politically acceptable to talk about diplomatic engagement in both Iran and the United States. In other words, this is much more of an evolutionary, rather than a revolutionary, change.
The real revolutionary change lies in the U.S. administration’s plans for dealing with Russia. When the NATO meeting began Thursday morning, Lithuania — on behalf of the Baltic states — tried to block a resolution that would restore ties with Moscow, under the guise of the NATO-Russia Council. Lithuania — along with Estonia, Latvia and Poland — has made it abundantly clear to Washington that it does not trust the Russians. These countries are all relying heavily on the planned U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems in Central Europe to guarantee their security against a resurgent Russia. By early afternoon, however, Lithuania’s protests had been swept aside and NATO states voted unanimously — in line with the wishes of Washington and other heavyweights — to restore ties with Moscow.
Then, Clinton moved on to the more contentious item on her agenda: breaking the news to the Georgian delegation – in a hastily scheduled meeting that took place shortly after the NATO-Russia Council vote — that the United States needs some space in their relationship. This means Tbilisi will more or less need to fend for itself the next time Russia starts rumbling in its neighborhood. In other words: The Georgians should forget about NATO membership for now, because the Americans have bigger problems to work on with the Russians.
This is Barack Obama’s biggest break from Bush administration policies. Even during the Russo-Georgian war last August and the shutoff of natural gas to Ukraine and downstream customers this winter, the Bush administration did not falter from its (at least rhetorical) position that the United States would stand behind the two former Soviet republics and continue pushing for their inclusion in NATO, at Russia’s expense. But the Obama administration, still fresh from the inauguration, is forging ahead with two big issues that require the Russians’ cooperation: developing an alternate supply route to Afghanistan and compelling Iran to curb its nuclear program. In order to win that cooperation, the Obama administration is very clearly signaling to Russia that it is willing to make concessions to get negotiations moving.
By disappointing the Georgians at this summit, the United States just moved the line of Russian influence in the former Soviet periphery several hundred miles to the west. The United States essentially told a recently war-ravaged country on the border of Russia — whose only real protection derives from its alliance with Washington — that the need for the United States to work out a deal with Russians is a bigger priority right now than providing for Georgia’s security. That message is likely to be met with horror throughout much of central and eastern Europe and with delight in Moscow. That said, the diplomatic stage is still being set, and there is much more to be worked out in the United States’ distrust-filled relationships with both Tehran and Moscow. We will be watching for Russia’s reaction to the U.S. gestures on Friday, when Clinton meets with her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, and for the level of actual progress in negotiations in the month before Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev meet.
Regardless, Thursday’s events provided very clear indicators that Washington has — for the time being — chosen a new foreign policy path that will win some and lose some. Now is the prime moment for the major global powers to reposition themselves.