Barack Obama’s vision of American foreign policy

Published on The, by David Blair, 26 Sept. 2009.

Only three years ago, the bristling, moustached figure of John Bolton prowled the corridors of the United Nations as America’s Ambassador to an organisation he wholeheartedly despised.

“There is no such thing as the United Nations,” he bluntly declared. “There is only the international community – which can only be led by the only remaining superpower.” If the UN’s Manhattan tower block were to lose 10 storeys, said Mr Bolton, this “wouldn’t make a bit of difference”.

This week, President Barack Obama spent the best part of two days inside the very building whose spectacular destruction would have delighted Mr Bolton. For the first time, an American president personally chaired a session of the Security Council; earlier he had laid out his vision of American foreign policy before the UN General Assembly …  

… “He wants a new mode of American diplomacy – what he and Hillary Clinton call ’smart diplomacy’. They want to get back to the old American pattern of making international organisations work in American interests,” said Sir Christopher.

“His advisers are very hard-headed guys from the Clinton era. If I was advising him, I would basically say: ‘Let’s use the UN for our own purposes.’ Behind the scenes, with the Russians and the Chinese, that’s where we push for the hard-headed deals.”

But there is one great risk attached to this approach. The likes of Mr Ahmadinejad and Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, might heed Mr Obama’s soaring rhetoric without realising that he is still prepared to be tough where necessary. The danger is that they will conclude he is a weak leader, who can be pushed around. For all his faults, no one ever thought this of Mr Bush.

Centuries ago, Machiavelli told politicians that it is always “better to be feared than loved”. While John Bolton would undoubtedly approve of this advice, Mr Obama is trying to invert the dictum.

In an imperfect world, however, he might care to remember the words of one of his predecessors, President Theodore Roosevelt, who declared that an American leader should always “speak softly – but carry a big stick”. (full text).

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