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Nukes Lobbying Brings Obama’s Foreign Policy into Focus

Analysis by Eli Clifton

WASHINGTON, Apr 14 2010 (IPS) - The past two weeks have been marked by major foreign policy accomplishments for U.S. President Barack Obama, including the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), the signing of a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, and what appear to be improvements in the increasingly tense Washington-Beijing relationship.

The administration’s emphasis on multilateral diplomacy and multilateral institutions – especially in the arms control and sanctions arenas – is giving experts here in Washington an idea of how this White House might frame its foreign policy agenda moving forward.

Strikingly, the administration’s foreign policy agenda appears to be coming into focus 15 months into Obama’s first term, with the past year largely devoted on the domestic side to a brutal legislative battle over the White House’s healthcare reform bill and, on the international side, an inherited war in Afghanistan and the decision to “surge” troop levels.

The flurry of activity to aggressively push the administration’s agenda on reducing nuclear stockpiles around the world has given an intriguing look at both what issues this president will prioritise as well as what strategy the administration will pursue to engage other countries in its foreign policy initiatives.

Nuclear non-proliferation and the goal of a “nuclear weapons-free world”, as Obama committed in Prague one year ago and again Tuesday, is an issue which is clearly of personal significance to Obama, who has been calling for the reduction, if not complete eradication, of nuclear weapons since his senior year at Columbia University.

Obama’s consistency on the issue of nuclear weapons has been evidenced in his administration’s NPR, which committed the U.S. to never using nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states, the new START arms reduction agreement with Russia, the hosting of the nuclear summit earlier this week, the upcoming NPT review conference in May and the administration’s anticipated push to convince the Senate to ratify both the new START agreement and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

For a president who been outspoken about his views on nuclear weapons, it should come as no surprise that this has been his first major policy initiative and one which has been handled with a high degree of nuance and planning.

Perhaps more telling is the administration’s emphasis on multilateral diplomacy, international institutions and a foreign policy vision which seeks to strengthen these institutions while accepting a realist worldview.

“If you are asking, ‘Do we have an international, one-world law enforcement,’ we don’t, and we never have,” Obama said at a press conference Tuesday, in response to a question about how the agreements inked at the nuclear security summit would be enforced.

Harvard international affairs professor Stephen Walt wrote that, “Obama recognises that there are no binding legal mechanisms or coercive power to impose greater nuclear security measures on other states, and the only way to make serious progress is to a) convince other governments that this is in their interest, b) use various carrots and sticks to persuade them to make a serious effort, and c) provide resources and technical expertise where needed.”

Also divergent from previous administrations has been the Obama White House’s eagerness to engage with the so called “non-aligned” countries who have traditionally avoided positioning themselves for or against any major power bloc.

Highlighting this new emphasis in U.S. multilateral diplomacy with the non-aligned states was a lunch hosted by Vice President Joe Biden at his residence Monday. The list included representatives from 12 non-aligned countries, including Algeria, Chile, Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Thailand and Vietnam.

Reasserting U.S. leadership to help form an international consensus on non-proliferation issues is, undoubtedly, a worthy effort, but few here in Washington thought that Obama would find much resistance to an initiative to prevent nuclear materials from falling into the hands of terrorists.

The hidden message of the summit’s success may be that it was a test run for a president who has spent the past 15 months working on a domestic policy agenda and inherited foreign policy challenges and must now test whether his international popularity can be translated into real consensus-building on international diplomacy.

There are no shortages of future tests for Obama’s charisma, diplomacy and realist worldview.

Securing Chinese support for U.N. sanctions against Iran’s nuclear programme; rebuilding a relationship with Beijing that has been battered after U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and a White House meeting with the Dalai Lama; and an increasingly critical policy towards Israel’s settlement construction in East Jerusalem will all require far more nuance and tact than aligning the world’s most powerful countries against nuclear-armed terrorists.

Coming out of the summit, it seems that U.S.-China relations are experiencing a long awaited improvement with Chinese Premier Hu Jintao having agreed to discuss the issue of U.N. sanctions against Iran.

Perhaps the greatest foreign policy challenge, and one which U.S. presidents have historically found little success, will be in forging a peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In response to a question at his Tuesday press conference, Obama repeated General David Petraeus’s position that the ongoing tensions in the Middle East hurt U.S. national security interests.

“It is a vital national security interest of the United States to reduce these conflicts because whether we like it or not, we remain a dominant military superpower,” he said.

“And when conflicts break out, one way or another, we get pulled into them. And that ends up costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure,” he went on to say.

As relations with Benjamin Netanyahu’s government continue to hit new lows after Biden’s visit to Israel last month – on the eve of his meeting with Netanyahu, the Israeli government announced the construction of a new apartment block in East Jerusalem – many see the Obama administration as leaning towards imposing a peace plan on the Israelis and Palestinians.

On Friday, the White House tried to tamp down rumours of an imposed peace process warning that they would not “surprise anybody at any time”.

The promise is probably sincere but an analysis of the past two weeks would conclude that the Obama White House, when it chooses, can leverage international institutions and multilateral diplomacy to effectively promote U.S. interests in the international arena.

Obama and Petraeus’s characterisation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as harmful to U.S. interests would suggest that resolving the conflict might be high on the White House’s “to-do” list.

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