Voice

The Other Pivot

America rediscovers diplomacy.

The foreign-policy Christmas gift of the year may have been given by the president of the United States and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the new nominee for Clinton's job, Sen. John Kerry. The gift is not, however, Secretary Clinton's seventh-floor office at State Department headquarters in Foggy Bottom. It is instead related to what could actually someday be seen as the administration's most important international affairs legacy and Clinton's greatest contribution as secretary of state: the restoration of diplomacy to its proper place in U.S. international policy.

Over the past two decades, the role of the State Department has diminished. In part, this is because the White House has assumed a more central role in making policy. In part, this is because in a one-superpower world, we stopped thinking we needed to ask permission or gain support to take action internationally. In part, this is because of the elevation of the defense and intelligence communities in the so-called War on Terror. And in part, it is because the role of ambassadors and embassies has been marginalized due to new communications technologies and the ability (and inclination) of world leaders to go around lower-level functionaries at State and right to their bosses.

But a number of factors have produced what might be seen as a surprising reversal.  Why surprising?  Because the changes have come during an administration in which the White House has actively controlled policy formation (so give the president and his advisors credit for recognizing the need for the renaissance of diplomacy), while the technological trends mentioned above have only continued to reduce the role played by most ambassadors.

First, the president came into office with an openness to engagement that set the stage. Say what you will about Obama: He has at least resisted the unconstructive view that speaking to our enemies was a sign of weakness. Next, America's domestic economic problems, our wounds from Iraq and Afghanistan, and our consequent reluctance to get involved in major military operations overseas and the rise of other powers has made it increasingly important to be able to assemble coalitions to get anything done.

It was Clinton who played the vital role of seizing the moment and effectively putting diplomacy in action. Whether it was fashioning a next-generation coalition around the intervention in Libya, working to bring pressure on Iran with unprecedented sanctions, helping herd the cats of the international community into some action in Syria, the vital bilateral and multilateral groundwork that made the "pivot" to Asia a reality, or the renewed efforts to work effectively through the U.N. or other multilateral mechanisms, active diplomacy only grew more important over the past four years. Some of these efforts were clearly more effective than others. Some efforts -- like those to advance climate negotiations or the reset with Russia or efforts to stop the slaughter of Syrian innocents -- were frustratingly ineffective. Some -- like the embrace of emerging powers, raising the profile of groups like the Arctic Council, or the effort to negotiate a stop to Iran's nuclear program -- are clearly works in progress. But with troops being pulled out of Iraq and Afghanistan and no public appetite for future comparable interventions, it is clear that the during the next four years, America's foreign policy will turn more centrally on the effectiveness of the diplomacy Kerry leads than perhaps any comparable period since the end of the Cold War.

The centrality of diplomacy also creates the possibility of a great legacy issue for Obama's foreign policy. That issue was touched upon at the recent forum Foreign Policy conducted with the State Department called "Transformational Trends." During the event, U.S. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon was featured in a keynote conversation. Donilon is one of the key architects with Clinton of this other, more important, pivot -- the one away from a unilateralist, force-based foreign policy to one in which diplomacy, alliances, and coalition-building is more central.

In his candid, wide-ranging comments, Donilon focused on what he saw as America's unique national advantage. "We have," he said, "the ability to work anywhere in the world with allies with whom we have shared threat assessment and established habits of cooperation. This represents a deep investment in an asset none of our peers and none of our competitors have. It's a huge plus for the United States and one that we can never take for granted and must work on constantly."

He went on to say, "As a strategic matter, understanding the importance of our alliances, the renewal of our alliances has been a top priority. People will give their own grades to this. But I think it's fair to say that both in Europe and in Asia, our alliances are in quite good shape after a tremendous amount of effort."

It is hard but important to remember how damaged America's alliances were in the wake of the invasion of Iraq. But this administration came in and made restoring those alliances a top priority. The strategic rebalancing to Asia deepened existing ties from Korea to Japan to Southeast Asia to India. Developing new levels of cooperation with regional powers like Turkey and the moderate Arab states, whether in dealing with Syria or Libya or other regional issues, has been another important dimension of this overall initiative.

Much work remains to be done. Indeed, one could see a second Obama term making significant progress by building on this focus on alliances and diplomacy as the centerpiece of its foreign policy. This is a way to leverage constrained assets and to reduce risk by deepening friendships and cooperation rather than through enhancing our ability to intimidate or impose our will.

Areas of special opportunity should include: tightening ties with our European allies, possibly through seriously consider a U.S.-EU Free Trade Agreement and a similar initiative with our friends in Japan (in both cases, the key will be agricultural subsidies reform, a growing possibility given the fiscal condition of all the participants -- something that will create real goodwill and further possibilities for cooperation with emerging powers like Brazil), deepening ties with India, potentially the emerging power with whom the United States might have the closest and most important ties, strengthening NAFTA given the economic vitality and shared interests associated with the North American resource boom, and seeking institutional reforms in vital multilateral mechanisms such as the NPT, WTO, U.N. Security Council (supporting Brazilian permanent membership in addition to that of India, Japan, and Germany could strengthen ties at a very low cost to the U.S.). Finding ways to work even more effectively with vital partners in the Middle East like Turkey and the moderate Arab states, deepening ties with potential allies in Africa, and supporting our ties with key powers in Asia through moving ahead with Trans-Pacific Partnership and similar regional trade agreements would all augment this effort. Finally, realizing progress on the president's grandest of all initiatives, the one laid out in his Prague speech about moving toward the ultimate elimination of nuclear weapons, would be a dramatic triumph of diplomacy, as would brokering a much-needed deal that would bring into secure existence an independent, viable Palestine that recognizes Israel as its neighbor.

Not all of these goals will be achieved. But the reality is that all of them are possibilities and that they are being discussed. That is a tribute to some of the subtler and more positive changes made in U.S. policy over the past four years. It is also a recognition that such agreements are actually in the interests of all involved. We are, after all, at a moment in which all the world's major powers face great challenges at home and none, including the United States, can afford costly or unilateral ventures elsewhere in the world. It is a time ripe for progress in diplomacy. And we have an administration with a proven commitment to exploring avenues for diplomatic progress that also recognizes that neither America's strength nor our security can be assessed in the number of our divisions or carrier battle groups, but rather in the number of countries that view us as a friend.

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David Rothkopf

A President We Can Believe In

Newtown changed Obama. Can it change the world?

Can the slaughter of children in a small elementary school in suburban Connecticut have global implications? Can it change not only the gun politics of America, but also the broader political mood in the country? Can it help transform a cautious president into a bolder one, a calculating man into one of vision and action? Can that president go from a first term full of speeches about great principles to a second one in which he actually takes steps to fulfill at least some of the promise of those speeches?

Barack Obama is a cool customer. Those closest to him will acknowledge it. His supporters frame it as a strength, and in some circumstances it clearly is. But it has also been a weakness. Too often he has been too inclined to do the math, split the difference, be expedient. During his first term this was clear on big issues -- on climate, on extending the Bush tax cuts, on Afghanistan and, as we have all too acutely felt again in recent days, on guns.

But Obama is also a father of young girls. The degree to which the horror and the heartbreak of Newtown touched him was palpable, whether it was in his first remarks on Friday or during his extraordinary Sunday night address to the people most affected by the school murders. It was not just the flicking away of tears that illustrated how deeply he was moved. It was the degree to which he set aside -- finally -- that characteristic Obama caution.

American leaders rarely do what Obama did Sunday night. I don't recall the last time I heard an American president so bluntly state that we were failing our children and our obligations to one another as a nation. "Can we honestly say that we're doing enough to keep our children, all of them, safe from harm?" he asked. "If we're honest with ourselves, the answer's no. We're not doing enough. And we will have to change."

He did not mention guns. He didn't have to. It was clear that he was saying 300 million guns in circulation is too many. It was clear he was saying that 30,000 gun deaths a year is an abomination. The United States has spent some $3 trillion combating terror since 9/11, and guns at home have killed twice as many Americans as terrorists have killed people worldwide since then. It is not just a national scandal. It is a disease, a fundamental and profound flaw in our national character.

What if Newtown changed Obama for the better in much the way that 9/11 changed Bush for the worse? What if it produced real soul-searching -- if only for a moment -- and an acknowledgement that the greatest American leaders have been measured and distinguished by how they made us better than we were before? Whether it was the founders initiating our long struggle with the challenges of democracy, Lincoln ending slavery, Roosevelt committing us to helping the weakest among us, or Johnson shepherding through landmark civil rights laws, these men had the courage to say, "We can do better." National challenges reveal the true character of both America's presidents and its people.

Obama knows better than anyone that changing our gun laws won't be easy. He knows the forces that are arrayed against them. But he also saw them in disarray and retreat this weekend, with the National Rifle Association taking down its Facebook page and the 31 senators who advertise themselves as "pro-gun" refusing a chance to defend their position on "Meet the Press." Heavily armed America went into hiding. He sensed perhaps that the shock of Friday might start, indeed might have already started to color the rest of the political debate in Washington. And maybe -- better still -- he stopped caring so much about whether it did or not.

For decades, serious efforts at gun control had been a third rail in American politics. Tragedy after tragedy would occur -- Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson, Aurora -- and nothing would be done. The Supreme Court, wrong as it had been on Dred Scott and Citizens United, would reassert that an anachronistic provision in the U.S. Constitution guaranteed a broad right to gun ownership, and pols would just shrug. The gun lobby was seen as potent and gun owners were seen as key to electoral margins. Every day 30 people died from gunshot wounds --in other words, every day, another Newtown -- because what passes for the smart money in that D.C. said doing anything about it would be too hard.

But the thing that has sustained America and helped it flourish is not that we are always right (far from it: our transgressions have regularly rivaled our triumphs), but that we sometimes see we must change. We have a system that contains the seeds of its own reinvention. And this weekend, our cool, cautious president seemed to conclude that this was one of those moments.

Of course, it remains to be seen if that will be so. For all the reasons that common-sense change has yet to have come, it will be hard to produce. But one couldn't help but observe a change in the president this weekend. Some of it may have had to do with how he has grown on the job. Some of it may have had to do with his solid victory in November. Some may have had to do with the fact that his tough negotiating stance with the Republicans seemed to be moving the country toward a deal on the "fiscal cliff."

I repeat: Nothing is assured. Time and again, Obama has been a leadership tease, making a soaring speech and following it up with halfway measures or delays. To the doubters this time, I say: Go watch the speech. Watch Obama. Don't be distracted by relatively minor recent setbacks like the Susan Rice dust-up. After all, in the end, the president wasn't distracted. He stayed focused on the work at hand, on negotiations on the Hill, on making selections for his second-term cabinet.

As far as how that may impact the rest of this world, we shall start to see the consequences fairly soon. Later this week, Obama is likely to name an experienced, potent national security team led by Sen. John Kerry, currently chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that, working with a more confident president, could be an assertive, effective force on the international stage. In fact, expect them to start out actively engaging in the most urgent of the issues of the Middle East, from Syria to Iran to Egypt to the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate.

And this weekend's events may have even more important implications, because at this moment in U.S. history, almost all the greatest national security challenges the country faces are domestic in nature. As historian Paul Kennedy long ago noted, great nations tend to fall from within. Not only do guns kill far more Americans than terrorists ever will, but we are suffering from grievous internal fiscal bleeding and, to date, from a political system that has been sadly dysfunctional. That dysfunction, despite what you may read, has happened before in our history. But then some crisis, some catalyst, some series of developments, produces real leadership -- and that's when change and growth and progress and renewal happens.

This could be one of those moments. You will see telling hints as to whether the change is real in the weeks ahead. If the president is able to cut a deal on the fiscal cliff, if he takes meaningful steps toward gun control, and if he moves on the more ambitious elements of his second term-agenda -- like immigration reform, promoting investment in education and infrastructure, or shaping a sustainable national energy policy -- then you will know that this is a different Obama.

In his address before the Newtown vigil on Sunday evening, the president concluded with a ringing call to action. After a heartbreaking litany of the names of the murdered children, Obama said, "God has called them all home. For those of us who remain, let us find the strength to carry on, and make our country worthy of their memory."

That is a tall order. But if you believe as I do that our most basic mission in life is to love our children and that it should inform every action we take, it is also precisely the right star for a head of state or a great nation to steer by.

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