November 15, 2010

New To Old: Obama Travels Signal Foreign Policy Shift

After many months at home, President Obama is taking back-to-back foreign trips that represent a pivot from new foreign policy challenges to old ones.

He is currently on a 10-day tour of developing democracies in Asia, where the same forward-looking words keep showing up in his speeches: growth, arrival and emergence. Next week, he attends a NATO summit in Lisbon, Portugal, where the challenge is reinvention and relevance for a 20th century institution trying to find its role in the 21st century.

In Jakarta on Tuesday, the president described his childhood home of Indonesia as a nexus of 21st century challenges and opportunities — ranging from climate change to religious diversity to economic development.

"Indonesia is going to have a seat at the table and its leadership is going to be absolutely critical," he said.

A day earlier, the president was at the heart of another quickly growing Asian democracy. In New Delhi, Obama said he believes India should have a seat on the United Nations Security Council.

"In just decades," he said, "you have achieved progress and development that took other nations centuries."

Old Meets New

Those nations that took centuries to develop in old Europe will be the focus of Obama's next foreign trip — his visit to Portugal for the two-day NATO summit. Obama will shift from a booming continent of emerging democracies trying to find their place in the world to a decades-old alliance of established democracies trying to stay relevant.

"NATO has to continue to transform to remain effective," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a speech last month about the future of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

At next week's meeting in Lisbon, NATO member countries will agree to a new Strategic Concept for the first time since 1999. It's effectively a new mission statement.

As Rasmussen said in his speech, a lot has changed. Armies are no longer threatening to invade Europe; terrorists and computer hackers are. "There are fewer military threats to our territory, but more challenges to our security from every direction, including cyberspace," he said.

Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation describes these back-to-back presidential trips as "an old river of foreign policy problems meeting a new river." Clemons, who writes about foreign policy at The Washington Note blog, describes the convergence as "a bit chaotic."

That merge is evident in an area like the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan. NATO has thousands of troops in Afghanistan, while India shares a border with Pakistan.

Clemons believes the United States must keep a foot in each world for the good of America's national security and its economy.

"Working with these emerging powers and going to where the growth is, is a better way to reinvent America as the Google of countries rather than just being the General Motors of countries," he says.

Building New Alliances, Strengthening Old

"We used to look at issues in stovepipes: national security, economic, human rights," says Rudy deLeon, a former deputy defense secretary now at the Center for American Progress, a think tank. "What we now know is that all of these issues are interconnected, and you really can't solve one type of problem in any one location or with any one country." 

For example, NATO countries such as Great Britain are cutting their defense budgets because of the bad economy. Britain might bounce back by selling more goods and services to fast-growing Asian countries.

So national security and economics, Europe and Asia, old world and new, are actually bound tightly together. Obama's travel this month reflects that.

"We've had a theory since we came to office that we need to broaden the circle of countries that we're partnering with," said White House spokesman Ben Rhodes, speaking aboard Air Force One as the president flew from Indonesia to South Korea.

"I think that they provide a bookend in many ways, this trip and the NATO summit, to our view of foreign policy," Rhodes added. "We still need to strengthen and cultivate our core alliances, but we also need to build out from those alliances."

But Richard Fontaine of the Center for a New American Security, who was a foreign policy adviser to Sen. John McCain, believes this is just the state of reality, no matter who is running the country. "Any American president, I think, would be pulled more in the direction of the dynamic of political, economic and military blocs that are in Asia."

A president in 2010 cannot afford to ignore old allies or new ones, he says. As the past year has shown, economic decisions made in Greece can be as critical to American well-being as currency decisions in China, or actions by the Federal Reserve in Washington.