Barack Obama’s critics often refer to his inexperience, and nowhere does this inexperience looks so obvious as in international affairs.
This criticism doesn’t seem to resonate with the American public, which is well aware of the fact that the presence of highly acclaimed foreign policy "experts" within the Bush administration (Cheney, Rumsfeld) didn’t prevent the latter from making a number of disastrous decisions. Besides, none of Obama’s rivals on both sides of the nomination race, with the exception of Bill Richardson, have hands-on international experience, unless one counts as one sitting in a foreign prison.
It’s thus sufficient at this point to review what Obama says about foreign relations and compare it to what other candidates say on the same topic.
In April, Obama gave a speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs articulating his foreign policy agenda. A slightly polished version of the same speech was published in the July/August issue of the Foreign Affairs.
In the speech and the article, Obama rejects both the outdated ideological constructs of his Republican opponents, John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, and the cheap populism of John Edwards. He also avoids the temptation to compete with Hillary Clinton in putting together the longest list of things-to-do-to-save-the-world.
Obama is very rational in both defining the threats to the security of the United States and in finding ways to confront them. He also shows a lot of common sense — the rarest commodity in today’s Washington — in deciding just how much can be done by the president of a single country, however powerful. (Obama titled his piece "Renewing American Leadership", but, I guess, the title "The Audacity of Common Sense" would be very appropriate as well — and I’m only slightly ironic here.)
Obama is quick to dispel a notion that, by virtue of being a Democrat, he’s "soft on national security":
"I will not hesitate to use force, unilaterally if necessary, to protect the American people or our vital interests whenever we are attacked or imminently threatened."
But it’s the next "but" that makes Obama looking smart in addition to being tough:
"But when we do use force in situations other than self-defense, we should make every effort to garner the clear support and participation of others..."
And in a clear reference to the Bush administration’s conduct of the war in Iraq, he goes on:
" … we must also clearly define the mission, prescribe concrete political and military objectives …"
Obama’s recipe for ending the war in Iraq isn’t original. Rather, what he prescribes has recently emerged as a consensus among military and foreign policy experts: a phased withdrawal of American forces while leaving behind a limited number of troops to to fight al Qaeda and to provide training to the Iraqi army and police. Obama also insists that the American support should be contingent upon the Iraqi government meeting "a series of well-defined benchmarks necessary to reach a political settlement."
Just like every other presidential candidate, Obama is a proponent of strengthening the U.S. military. But here, again, he shows a dose of common sense in choosing the direction: he specifically calls for the expansion of the ground forces by adding 65,000 soldiers to the Army and 27,000 Marines. One can easily imagine how additional troops can be used to fight al Qaeda. On the contrary, it isn’t evident at all how the "war on terror" can be helped by deploying additional "modern long-range bombers and in-flight refueling tankers" as suggested by Giuliani.
The most attractive part of Obama’s agenda is his definition of "the most urgent threat to the security of America and the world." Instead of talking about "terrorists who want to kill Americans" — a cliche that never served any purposes — he specifically points out the danger of the spread of nuclear weapons and materials and the risk of their falling into the hands of terrorist groups.
Defining the non-proliferation effort as the most important non-domestic issue of his presidency, Obama easily comes up with concrete and measurable action points. He promises to work with other countries to secure nuclear weapons and materials at all vulnerable sites world-wide within 4 years.
In this effort, the relationship with Russia becomes critical. Obviously, as any mainstream American politician, Obama cannot mention Russia without firing a mandatory shot at it. However, his focus is unquestionably on cooperation with Russia, not on confrontation with it:
" … Russia is neither our enemy nor close ally right now, and we shouldn’t shy away from pushing for more democracy, transparency, and accountability in that country. But we also know that we can and must work with Russia to make sure … its nuclear weapons and … nuclear material[s] [are] secured."
To further this point, Obama is going to work with Russia on creating an international bank for nuclear reactor fuel supply — to prevent other countries from developing their own enrichment facilities — and promises $50 million to get the fuel bank started.
Obama speaks about cooperation with Russia again in the context of a broad agreement between the world’s largest polluters (U.S., China, India, EU, and Russia) on cutting the greenhouse gas emissions.
Obama’s weak point is his unclear attitude towards NATO. On the one hand, he’s unhappy with NATO’s inadequate military capabilities as demonstrated, for example, by NATO forces losing the ground in Afghanistan. Obama wants other NATO member-states to contribute more troops and resources. On the other hand, Obama provides no clue as to what mission he sees for the organization in the future.
When choosing their presidents, Americans pay little attention to non-domestic issues and to foreign policy credentials of prospective candidates. Barack Obama will not get nominated by the Democratic Party for his sensible foreign policy views. Nor will he lose the nomination because of that.
But the American people — and the rest of the world — may at least hope that the Obama administration will spare them from fighting chimeras existing only in the inflamed heads of current foreign policy makers.