When George Bush played host two weeks ago to the G-20 gathering of the world's leading economic powers, it was apparent that they believed America's economic power in the world has declined. Their question was: can Barack Obama restore America's financial health and regain its commanding international position?
Bush came under heavy pressure from the Europeans last month to call this meeting soon after the U.S. elections because of the world's financial crisis. He told French President Nicolas Sarkozy that the G-8 group, which has dominated economic relations for twenty-five years, must be expanded and include such major new players as China, India, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa.
By this action, Bush may have earned himself the legacy of being the first American president to open the world's financial club to a more representative array of economic players, to replace the European/American/Japanese centered G-8.
Barack Obama, as president, will inherit responsibility for managing America's recovery from the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. His appointment of Timothy Geithner as treasury secretary should reassure bankers and investors at home and abroad that this key department will be led by an experienced, highly competent person.
Obama's reported choice of Hillary Clinton to be secretary of state generated great interest both at home and abroad. Supporters say her appointment to this important post will heal scars in the Democratic Party left by her failure to win the nomination for president and Obama's failure to select her as his running mate. Skeptics wonder whether Bill Clinton's desire to play a role in international affairs can be limited.
A larger, crucial question, is whether a president Obama and secretary Clinton will forge a close partnership on foreign policy and speak with one voice to the world‘s leaders. For example, will their working relationship be as close as George H.W. Bush's was with James Baker, his chief diplomat, or Richard Nixon's ties were with Henry Kissinger, his national security adviser and eventually secretary of state?
The selection of retired General James Jones, former supreme commander of NATO forces in Europe, as national security adviser gives Obama, who has little experience in that field, a highly regarded military adviser with broad foreign policy experience. Jones will be of great help in working with the Pentagon where Robert Gates, who performed exceptionally well in the last two years, reportedly has agreed to remain as secretary of defense.
The Obama-Clinton relationship will be tested quickly in the Middle East, specifically on relations with Iran and on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Shifting some U.S. military resources from Iraq to Afghanistan next year will also be a challenge.
But a disturbing, longer-range challenge facing the incoming administration is how to deal with the increasingly assertive leaders of Russia, President Dimitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Moscow's invasion of neighboring Georgia last August and its refusal to join European and American efforts to impose tough economic sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program causes NATO to question Russia's intentions.
Within hours of Barack Obama's election on November 4, Medvedev threw cold water on his celebration by publicly threatening to place missiles on the borders of Poland and Lithuania, both NATO countries, if the new administration installs a missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. ("Russia Gives Obama Brisk Warning," Washington. Post, Nov. 6).
Although Bush administration officials argue that the defense shield is directed at Iran's nuclear threat and offers Russia an opportunity to join, Moscow views a U.S. missile installation so close to its borders as a vital national interest, equivalent to putting a Russian base in Venezuela or Nicaragua.
Is it possible that the incoming President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton could negotiate a compromise with Moscow, for example: in return for Washington's suspending plans for a defense shield in Poland, Moscow agrees to exert real pressure on Iran to give up its nuclear weapons program? If Iran can be persuaded to abandon plans to become a nuclear power, there would be no need for a U.S. defense shield in Poland.
Another potential negotiation with Russia might be: in return for its guaranteeing an uninterrupted flow of natural gas to Western Europe, NATO would put off plans to offer membership to Ukraine and Georgia, another grievance of Medvedev and Putin.
Barack Obama expressed interest during the election campaign in talking with this country's adversaries and trying to reach accommodations. Moscow might be a good place to start.
File last modified on Sunday, 30-NOV-2008 1:50 PM EST