Scoop! U.S. offers to cooperate with world

By Paul Taylor
January 22, 2009

Paul Taylor Great Debate– Paul Taylor is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

An American president vowing to cooperate with the rest of the world would barely be news if it did not follow eight years’ of George W. Bush’s tenure in the White House.

Barack Obama’s inauguration address was thin on foreign policy specifics, but his pledge to work with allies and adversaries on global problems from nuclear weapons to climate change was a message many have waited impatiently to hear.

In a few phrases, Obama sought to close the chapter on the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the Guantanamo Bay prisoner camp and the use of torture, denial of global warming and heavy-handed attempts to promote democracy across the Middle East.

His affirmation that “we are ready to lead once more” was tempered by commitments to the rule of law, human rights, military restraint and diplomatic alliances.

In one sentence, he set himself apart from Bush’s muscular unilateralism without renouncing force. “Our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please.”

Obama enunciated modest objectives for extricating the United States from the two wars he inherits from Bush — leaving Iraq responsibly to its people, and forging a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. No talk of victory or of “mission accomplished”.

His vow to defeat terrorism was coupled with a promise to seek a new way forward with the Muslim world, where Washington’s image suffered the most damage during the Bush years.

Where Bush made the “global war on terrorism” the central paradigm of his national security strategy, Obama set a broader and more inclusive agenda including areas disdained by his predecessor such as arms control and green energy.

Where Bush, right up to his final address, divided the world into good and evil, the new president offered to work with non-democracies and what used to be called “rogue states”.

“To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist,” he said.

Obama did not mention the flashpoints of recent weeks — the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Russia’s use of its energy resources, or tension between India and Pakistan.

The guns fell silent in Gaza and the gas taps reopened at the Russia-Ukraine border just before he took office. No one wanted to be the first international problem for a president who warned that leaders would be judged by “what you can build, not what you destroy”.

Obama omitted any mention of free trade, amid rising protectionist pressure among his own electorate heightened by the global economic crisis.

Nor did he commit the United States in his first address to a reform of global governance to give more say to emerging powers such as China, India, Brazil or South Africa.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy used the U.S. leadership vacuum during Bush’s lame-duck period to press for expanding the Group of Eight industrialized powers and reforming the IMF, the World Bank and the U.N. Security Council.

Obama acknowledged that globalization and new threats such as nuclear proliferation and global warming would require “even greater cooperation and understanding between nations”.

His administration will have to turn that philosophy into practical policy before the G20 summit of nations representing 90 percent of global economic output meet in London in April.

Obama faces some other tough early choices.

He must arbitrate between those who argue that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian conflicts holds the key to Middle East stability, and those who say conditions are not ripe for peace and he should focus on Iran’s nuclear program.

He will have to choose between seeking Russia’s cooperation to reduce nuclear arsenals and combat the spread of nuclear weapons and continuing Bush’s divisive drive to bring former Soviet republics Georgia and Ukraine into NATO.

And he must decide whether to pursue a deal in world trade talks that could avert beggar-thy-neighbor protectionism in the economic crisis, or to assuage his voters by embracing “buy
American” measures and taking a tougher line on imports from low-cost producers such as China.

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When the new president endorsed things that make Americal great, such as the rule of law, rejection of torture, military restraint, and detente with the Muslim world it seemed to me like the thaw after a long winter. I felt proud of the US again. The country’s greatness shows in its soft power — after WWII, in the demilitarization of Japan and the Marshall plan’s creation of prosperous allies that were the envy of the world.