What to Expect...

When you are expecting Obama

Around the globe, people cheered the momentous election of Sen. Barack Obama as president of the United States—perhaps it was the triumph of hope, perhaps the closing of a flawless public relations campaign or, more realistically, a little bit of both. Either way, the results last Tuesday convinced millions that “change is coming,” not only within America, but also in relations between the U.S. and other nations. As the president-elect and his transition team seek to temper expectations around the many hot issues that decided the election, what should we expect from an Obama presidency in terms of foreign affairs?

First and foremost, Obama must make good on his promise of rebuilding strategic alliances, starting with the European Union (EU). Since the day when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld infamously divided the continent in terms of “old” and “new” Europe, relations with France and Germany have been strained. With power swings in Italy and Spain, as well as opposition in Britain, other allies have also become more reluctant to blindly follow the U.S.’s lead. But President Obama will need them on his side, especially if the effort of nation-building in Afghanistan is to succeed. After all, the EU shares the agenda of liberal America, favoring human rights, political and economic freedoms, and environmental sustainability. A classically liberal internationalism should bring the traditional “West” together again.

When it comes to resurgent Russia, a more united U.S.-EU front would definitely help. America’s most formidable rival has been flexing its muscle lately, first in Georgia and perhaps soon in Ukraine. The Russian economy may stand on shaky foundations, but the government of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has developed a taste for the international spotlight. Despite the Russian president’s tough stance on the U.S. in his state-of-the-country address the morning after Obama’s election, the Kremlin described the first Obama-Medvedev talk on Saturday as a “constructive and positive interaction,” whatever that means. For the new American administration, the goal will be to keep Russia from arming countries like Venezuela or Iran and threatening the territorial integrity of Ukraine and other former Soviet republics. The price will be hefty, including perhaps a renegotiation of Bush’s precious missile defense shield, but the rewards are worth it: Bringing Russia into closer relations with the U.S. has the potential to further democratic elements within Moscow’s sphere of power, weakening the autocratic elites who dream of Tsarist empires.

Another priority for the Obama administration will be the Middle East. With two wars, Iran’s nuclear aspirations, and the perennial Israel-Palestine quagmire, to say the region is a ticking bomb is an understatement. Perhaps more than anywhere else, Obama’s reputation and credibility have a real potential to better this region, particularly in achieving a modus vivendi for Israel. Although the prospect of full American withdrawal from Iraq sounds frightening, Obama’s insistence on furthering efforts in Afghanistan are promising, especially if they involve further multilateral involvement and tangible nation-building. At the same time, the incoming Democratic administration should adopt a Republican stance on Iran, making it clear to both Tehran and Tel Aviv that a nuclear Iran should not, and will never, happen. This week’s anger in Iranian military circles due to Obama’s strong stance on the issue is most definitely a good sign.

In terms of other key relationships for the world’s superpower, President Obama will have to dramatically reshape relations with both China and Latin America. One cannot underestimate the former’s importance going forward: The U.S. should not only seek China’s cooperation in reshaping financial markets and addressing climate change but also counter its commodity-seeking foreign economic policy, particularly its support for dubious regimes in Africa in exchange for natural resources. Specifically, the U.S. should do everything possible to persuade Beijing to take action about Darfur. Looking south, the U.S. must remember Latin America, which the Bush administration decided to forget well before 9/11. In those latitudes, the “missing neighbor” policy has only relinquished influence to populist leaders such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, who have done more harm than good with their neo-socialist mirages. In the region, Obama should actively support democratic, liberal, and free-trading leaders, which will hopefully bring about democratic stability and decreased anti-Americanism.

The challenges facing the incoming U.S. administration are high and the expectations even higher; in that, foreign affairs are no exception. In order to realize the hopes of millions around the world and revitalize Washington’s stance in the international community, Obama must be pragmatic but also remain true to the ideals of political and economic freedoms and human rights that America once helped make into international law. Neither the superpower nor the rest of the world can afford another obtuse administration—it may sound trite, but the stakes are just too high.

Pierpaolo Barbieri ’09, a former Crimson associate editorial chair, is a history concentrator in Eliot House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.