Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Building US foreign policy in a networked world

Faced with a choice for Secretary of State between Hillary Clinton, Chuck Hagel and Bill Richardson, President-elect Obama’s choice should be clear. While all of them have strengths to serve the new president well, only Governor Richardson brings both a depth of experience and a philosophical commitment to Barack Obama leadership style.

Each of the candidates brings great strengths to the position. Hillary Clinton would bring unrivaled superstar status to the position, and provide unmatched energy and focus to push ahead the Obama foreign policy agenda. Like her husband, she is a pragmatist who will quickly grasp the nuances of every issue, and she will bring––as she does to all things––a tremendous motivation to succeed.

Chuck Hagel is a very different choice. He is a serious student of foreign policy and military affairs, with a deeply grounded understanding of the international world. Unique among the Washington crowd, Hagel understands and has spoken on the most serious foreign policy challenge that we face, which remains our relationship with Russia. Our ability to address all other international issues—Iran, Iraq, the Middle East, nuclear proliferation, drug trafficking, and financial integration and regulation—will be either facilitated or undermined by our relationship with our former adversary. Hagel understood immediately our error in embracing the Kosovar declaration of independence, which undermined the primacy and principles of international law, and the far-reaching consequences of that action, which continue to unfold. Hagel recognizes the importance of American leadership that embraces the world in all its complexity, particularly after years of hubris and empty threats that have eroded our credibility and capacity to lead.

But in Bill Richardson, President-elect Obama can choose a seasoned international diplomat and negotiator who truly embraces the core of Obama’s worldview. Like Obama, Richardson understands and has practiced a style of diplomacy and leadership that begins with listening, and that is grounded in the view that even as disparate parties may have widely differing agendas, the most complex and intractable conflicts can be addressed if differences are acknowledged and respected, as a first step toward identifying and achieving common goals.

In addition, Richardson would bring to the administration a broad network of relationships across the international community and an ability to take on the portfolio of State with no learning curve. From his time as UN Ambassador, to his range of assignments as an international negotiator during both Democrat and Republican administration, Richardson has built an international reputation for diplomatic skill, integrity and credibility.

Much has been made of this being a time of transition from a uni-polar to a multi-polar world. But this is not an accurate reflection of the world that President-elect will inherit. The US will remain the dominant military and financial power for decades to come. However, the significance of that status is what people expected it to be, and the world has not, and will not in the future, march to our tune on account of that power. The emergence of asynchronous warfare and strategy has proven to be an effective counterpoint to US military dominance, and years of US deficits have led to the emergence of China and other countries as powerful financial players, even if the dollar remains dominant in times of crisis. Today, our power gives us the capacity to lead, but will not compel others to follow.

The celebrations around the world that greeted the election of Barack Obama reflect the hope that positive and effective US leadership will reemerge in the world. But that leadership must reflect a new world of struggling and emerging democratic nations that will each need to chart their own politics and path forward. This is a world that will need American support, encouragement and direction, but will not respond well to hubris or dictates from foreign soil.

The world today is defined by overlapping networks. National identity remains elemental, but in almost every conflict across the globe, we are witnessing the influence of transnational linkages and networks that put a claim on community identity. Afghanistan, Georgia, Kenya, Kosovo, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Russia, Sri Lanka, Syria, Timor, Ukraine, Zimbabwe. All of these nations are facing conflicts where religious, ethnic, tribal and family identities are threatening the primacy national identity as a unifying force. These challenges will be exacerbated rather than solved by democratic reforms––national unity was easier to maintain at the point of a gun––and demand the development of national and transnational institutions to create legal, political and regulatory frameworks for the new century.

In this world, US leadership and policy will need to focus on multiple levels and strategies. At the highest level, the US must define and focus on its core strategic interests. This is and will always be its primary priority. At the same time, the US must implement policies that encourage and support regional networks and leadership to engage regional conflicts and issues. The world of emerging and evolving democratic states must, under American leadership, learn new skills in conflict resolution. And all roads will no longer lead to Rome.

This is a world that is ready for the leadership of Barack Obama, who built a political campaign based on a philosophy of uniting people with vastly differing identities toward common purpose. This is the world in which Bill Richardson has been immersed for decades. A world he understands from extensive personal experience, and one where, like Barack Obama, he is greeted warmly wherever he goes as one who has the knowledge, understanding and philosophical stance that can enable him to bring together even the most entrenched adversaries.

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