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The Obama doctrine: Listening, not just talking

If there is an Obama foreign policy doctrine that has emerged in the first one hundred days, it is a modest one, rooted in listening, not just talking.
President Obama smiles alongside Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during his first cabinet meeting at the White House.Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images

If there is an Obama foreign policy doctrine that has emerged in the first one hundred days, it is a modest one, rooted in listening, not just talking.

This is not the era of grand gestures. President Barack Obama and his foreign policy team are not setting out to reshape the world for democracy.

To better understand "Obamaism," look at the President's own words:

  • In his inaugural address, he said: "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."
  • When NBC'S Chuck Todd asked the commander in chief to define his world view at the end of the Summit of the Americas earlier this month, he said: "That the United States remains the most powerful, wealthiest nation on earth, but we're only one nation, and that the problems that we confront, whether it's drug cartels, climate change, terrorism, you name it, can't be solved just by one country."
  • And during his trip to London, the president said: "I came here to put forward our ideas, but I also came here to listen, and not to lecture."

Obama has not been sitting back and waiting for the world to come to him. The president and his secretary of state have launched overtures in every direction.

From videos to handshakes
In just under 100 days, the president sent a video message to Iran commemorating the Persian New Year, signaling respect for the regime. He lifted travel restrictions on Cuban-Americans wanting to visit their homeland, while waiting for Havana to reciprocate before further easing of the travel and trade barriers. In Mexico City, he acknowledged U.S. responsibility for the American illegal drug market and smuggled weapons that are fueling the violence that has erupted south of the border. And he accepted a handshake and a gift — an anti-U.S. polemic — from Venezuela's showboating leader, Hugo Chavez.

Dismissing criticism from the right, Obama said, "It's unlikely that as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chavez that we are endangering the strategic interests of the United States."

He's bonded with his Russian and Chinese counterparts. And his secretary of state presented a symbolic "reset button" — although spelled incorrectly — to the Russian foreign minister.

Perhaps most surprising to early critics of the “team of rivals” approach to foreign policy, Hillary Clinton has transformed herself into an Obama subordinate: sitting comfortably behind the president in a “staff” position at the Summit of the Americas; greeting each new country she visits with some formulation of how happy she is to be representing President Obama’s policy; and perching on a picnic bench for a photogenic tete-a-tete outside the Oval Office with her new boss.

So far, the president’s confidence in her ability to elevate his agenda has been rewarded: from Beijing to The Hague, she is accorded the respect — and attention — of a visiting head of state.

The intractable challenges
Less clear is the viability of their “envoy” approach to policymaking. They have assembled a dazzling team of powerbrokers, most notably Richard Holbrooke for Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, and George Mitchell for the Middle East. But the challenges are still intractable.

In Afghanistan, Holbrooke must contend with a weak, corrupt central government — and an open-ended U.S. military commitment that could end up spelling “quagmire.” The power vacuum in Pakistan is, if anything, even more dangerous because of the presence of nuclear weapons.

In the Middle East, Israel’s new government says it won’t address the Palestinian issue unless the United States helps it counter Iran’s potential nuclear threat.

In North Korea, the struggle over who will succeed the ailing Kim Jong Il is likely already underway, as the regime reneges on its commitments to denuclearize, and tests a long-range ballistic missile. The prospects for meaningful negotiations with Pyongyang are so remote that the Obama team has designated only a part-time envoy to the stalemated six-party regional talks: Steven Bosworth is still holding down his day job as Dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Massachusetts.

And in Iran, upcoming elections have frozen any clear path toward a dialogue. It will be months before the administration knows who holds the reins of power — other than the Ayatollah.

At home, an uneasy rivalry has emerged among the president’s top intelligence advisors. White House aides are often frustrated with the Rube Goldberg intelligence bureaucracy engineered too hastily after the 9/11 Commission.

A minimum of infighting
But to the surprise of many, between the White House and the State Department, there is a striking collegiality. Much of the real work is accomplished at the deputy level, during lengthy daily meetings between two old friends — Deputy National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg.

Still, even good planning and a minimum of infighting can accomplish only so much. As Hillary Clinton learned on her first trip to China, international relations get a lot more complicated during a global recession. As countries lose economic power, and see weakness in the United States financial system, many are increasingly resentful of the U.S.

And this is where Obama’s personal diplomacy can be most effective.

From his first trip overseas last summer to his tour de force during the G-20, Obama has projected a rare combination of charisma and humility, in contrast to the stereotype of a domineering U.S. president trying to dictate by fiat to the rest of the world.

Facing potential “three a.m. crises” in every corner of the world in the next one hundred days and beyond, he will need all the star power he can muster.