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Nudging The World: Obama's Foreign Policy, One Year On

  • Brian Whitmore

One year after taking the oath of office, U.S. President Barack Obama still hasn't changed the world.

The Iranian regime continues to thumb its nose at the international community, defiantly pursuing a nuclear program and viciously suppressing its opponents. Peace between Israel and the Palestinians seems as distant as ever. Insurgent violence has worsened in Afghanistan, and spilled into neighboring Pakistan. Al-Qaeda continues to plot attacks against the United States and its allies.

Even initiatives that were supposed to be relatively easy, like a nuclear arms deal with Russia, have proven frustratingly elusive.

What Obama has managed to accomplish, analysts say, is improving the tenor and tone of international relations, lowering the global political temperature, and dramatically reviving the United States' image in the world. These are all developments, the White House hopes, that will pay dividends down the road.

"It's hard to point to any big successes or failures, because he has [only] started things. He's started processes that haven't worked themselves out yet," says Nikolas Gvosdev, a professor of national security studies at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island and editor of the blog "The Washington Realist."

"I see 2010 as the year when we start to see the failures and successes [emerge] from what he started in 2009. His timelines for what he has launched haven't resolved themselves yet."

The heady optimism that Obama's inauguration inspired in the United States and much of the world is already a distant memory. So as Obama prepares to begin his second year in office, the lingering question is whether the fading glow of Obama's electrifying win will be replaced by a less dynamic, but more lasting, change in global politics.

"Essentially what you have is a president who has said the old way wasn't working in terms of overreliance on military force, trying to coerce states into doing what you wanted them to do. He was going to change that approach and rely much more on engagement with America's adversaries to try to achieve what the United States was hoping to achieve," says James Goldgeier, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the book "America Between the Wars: from 11/9 to 9/11," which examines the period between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War in 1989 and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

"But the jury is still out on whether or not that will work."

The Nudge Factor

Observers say the administration's early strategy was built around creating structural incentives that the White House hopes will "nudge" troublesome states like Iran, Russia, and China toward greater cooperation with -- or less resistance to -- the United States. (The concept was popularized in the book "Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness," by Richard Thaler and Cass R. Sustein. Sustein currently serves as administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.)

By reaching out to Iran, the administration is hoping to nudge it in the direction of abandoning its nuclear program. In a clear appeal to Iran in his inaugural address, Obama famously said Washington was willing to "extend a hand, if you are willing to unclench your fist."

By "pushing the reset button" in relations with Russia, Obama is hoping to prod the Kremlin into applying greater pressure on Tehran over the nuclear issue and winning greater cooperation in transporting military hardware to Afghanistan.
I think the main idea has been to be calm and rational. To hit the emotional register where possible, but not to overreact

And by not publicly embarrassing China over its human rights record, Obama is hoping to cajole Beijing toward stronger curbs on greenhouse-gas emissions and monetary policies more beneficial to the world economy.

"In the approach to the Iran negotiations, starting off with some trial offers, you definitely saw a nudge factor at work. He's tried nudging the alliance to cough up more people for Afghanistan. It was at work to some extent, I think, with Russia," Gvosdev says.

But at times, the nudge strategy has put the White House in an uncomfortable spot.

When massive street protests broke out in Iran following a presidential election in June that was widely seen as flawed, Obama was criticized for being too slow to express support for the country's pro-democracy movement.

When, in an effort not to antagonize Beijing, Obama declined to see the Dalai Lama before visiting China in November, the move drew harsh criticism from rights activists.

Moreover, critics point out that so far, none of these initiatives have produced significant results.

The British weekly "The Economist" was harsh in its assessment of the U.S. president's strategy, writing that "Obama has been on a goodwill tour of the world, proffering the open hand rather than the clenched fist. Yet he has nothing much to show for it, other than a series of slaps in the face."

Edward Lucas, Central and Eastern European correspondent for "The Economist" and author of the book "The New Cold War," says for such an engagement strategy to work, it needs to also have teeth.

"It's not enough to be nice," Lucas says. "In dealing with some of these horrible regimes, we're still waiting for some kind of toughness. We've had the open hand. If they don't accept the open hand, then there has to be at least a smack behind it."

Tough Approach Coming?

There are some indications that the administration plans to pivot to a tougher stance in the coming year, particularly with Iran. With its gestures to Tehran having been repeatedly rebuffed, Obama is now seeking to push for sanctions. A UN resolution is expected to be unveiled within weeks.

White House officials still defend their early stance on Iran, saying that, having demonstrated its own openness to dialogue, the administration will now find it easier to isolate Tehran internationally and push for tough sanctions.

Analysts note that Obama, who thinks in terms of long-range, high-payoff goals, is unlikely to be undone by small losses and issues thrown up by the daily news cycle.

"I think the main idea has been to be calm and rational. To hit the emotional register where possible, but not to overreact. The Obama administration's strategy is not to worry about small snubs if you get the big goal at the end," Lucas says.

One such case could be Iran, which Gvosdev says is "approaching the worst crisis of its existence" in the aftermath of the disputed reelection of leader Mahmud Ahmadinejad as president.

Gvosdev says Obama's opening to Iran, and his measured approach throughout the summer crisis -- expressing eventual support for the protestors, while being careful not to be seen as interfering -- has actually denied the regime an external enemy to blame for its troubles.

"If the [Iranian] regime goes down, then [Obama] vindicates the nudge. He can come back and say: 'my nudge approach works better than lecturing and hectoring. You just nudge change along and wait for it to happen.'"

Moral Authority

There is one area, analysts say, where Obama has been an unqualified success -- his efforts to rebrand America and restore the United States' image in the world, which was badly damaged during the presidency of George W. Bush.

"He's in a process of rebranding that could potentially bear fruit in a couple years. It could lead again to a rejuvenation of a sense of American leadership of the community of nations," Gvosdev says.

"It's not there yet, because in part he doesn't have any successes yet that he can point to. The successes are still being germinated."

According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, a series of worldwide public opinion surveys, the image of the United States in the past year "has improved markedly in most parts of the world, reflecting global confidence in Barack Obama."

In France, for example, the number of residents who view the U.S. positively rose to 75 percent, up from 42 when Obama took office. In Germany, the U.S. is viewed positively by 64 percent of the population, a 33 percentage point increase over 2008.

The Pew poll also found a significant rise worldwide in confidence that Obama would "do the right thing" in foreign policy.

And analysts say Obama's U.S. rebranding isn't just a feel-good exercise. The restoration of Washington's good name is a key weapon in the U.S. foreign policy arsenal that will come in handy down the road as Obama deals with issues ranging from Iran, the war in Afghanistan, and relations with Russia.

"The great asset he's still got is moral authority. This is not the administration of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo anymore. This is an administration that is trying to repair the damage done by that," Lucas says.

"In all foreign policy issues that involve America is that there has got to be some kind of moral high ground. Otherwise, it just becomes old-fashioned, cynical geopolitics, and everybody is as good as everybody else. What is absolutely vital is that we can now talk about moral high ground."