What is it about Sen. Barack Obama that makes him a particularly timely and relevant candidate for America, at this stage in our history and in our relationship with the world? The major task of the next president will be to redefine America’s role in the world away from a conventional state-to-state, balance-of-power approach to one that’s more in tune with the challenges of our time.
Mr. Obama’s early opposition to the war in Iraq is well known. But his opposition to the war in Iraq is related to his more general concern that America is bungling it in global leadership.
His candidacy gives America an opportunity to redefine itself in relationship with the world precisely because he takes a global approach to our challenges rather than a more conventional approach. That global approach comes from a man who at an early age lived abroad, learned a foreign language and was raised by parents who themselves were foreign or desired to live in a foreign country.
That global approach expresses itself in a number of specific principles and policies:
- Indivisible security: Mr. Obama’s concept of “common security for our common humanity” is consistent with the threats we face today. Terrorism, pandemic disease, climate change and WMD proliferation can’t be contained by borders and walls. As he puts it, “the security and well-being of every American depends on the security and well-being of those who live beyond our borders.” We must develop critical infrastructure. Mr. Obama has introduced legislation to strengthen chemical plant and drinking water security and enhance disaster preparedness. But taking specific steps to further secure the homeland is only part of the answer to making America secure. The other part is addressing the root causes of terrorism, advancing America’s credibility abroad and addressing core political conflicts out of which terrorists emerge.
- Engagement rather that ostracism and criticism: Mr. Obama doesn’t minimize conflicts and threats, but he doesn’t demonize problems and adversaries. Of course Iran and Syria pursue agendas repugnant to Americans. But as we did during the Cold War, American interests are advanced by directly negotiating with our adversaries, not engaging in self-imposed ostracism. As he put it: “It’s time to turn the page on Washington’s conventional wisdom that agreement must be reached before you meet, that talking to other countries is some kind of reward, and that Presidents can only meet with people who tell them what they want to hear.”
- Reliance on genuine partnerships: Despite declarations by the Bush White House that the divide in the transatlantic relationship has diminished, there remains a substantial strategic gap between America and Europe. That gap stems from a differing definition of what is a “partnership.” The administration took the approach that partnership means sharing the burden, with Germany and France especially criticized because of their ability to do so and their refusal. For Europeans, partnership means collective decision-making, not unilateral action. “You’re with us or against us” is not partnership. As we develop a unity of purpose and shared understanding of the threats, European countries will step up their commitment in places like Afghanistan, without the burdensome restrictions that have hampered NATO’s effort.
- The war in Iraq and its regional context: Mr. Obama has been clear that we have to change course. Our current course is not only self-defeating in Iraq, but it also jeopardizes our national interests across the region. We’re viewed as colonial occupiers; Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is emboldened; we’ve been unable to devote attention to the critical challenge of Middle East peace; we’re losing ground gained in Afghanistan as resources are devoted to Iraq. The Iraqi government is not achieving political progress that was the stated purpose of the surge, and in key areas has gone backward. The best chance we have to leave Iraq a better place is to pressure the Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds toward an accommodation. The only way to apply this pressure is to begin phased withdrawal of U.S. forces now.
- Return to bipartisanship: A key part of Mr. Obama’s global approach is his return to bipartisanship in foreign policy. His tackling of the WMD challenge is consistent with that approach. He’s worked across the aisle with Sen. Richard Lugar, Indiana Republican, to address the challenge of nuclear proliferation, sponsoring legislation to help the United States and allies stop smuggling of WMD. To succeed in Iraq and elsewhere, our approach must be the product of genuine bipartisan collaboration. From the beginning of the Iraq misadventure that hasn’t happened. It’s the first war in modern American history conducted that way: Even Vietnam saw effort toward bipartisan consultation.
Mr. Obama’s candidacy alone tells you something about him and America. But the broader significance of his candidacy is the global approach he takes to challenges we face today.
Mark Brzezinski, an international lawyer in Washington, is a member of the Obama Presidential Campaign’s foreign policy team.
The original version of this article was published on the Washington Times on October 26, 2007. Printed here by permission of the author.
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