Foreign policy in the Obama age

American foreign policy under President Barack Obama is changing in both style and substance from that of his predecessor in the White House. Gone are the more simplistic Manichean pronouncements for which even Bush eventually admitted fault. Scriptural references and allusions to policies approved by God now appear essentially quaint. The USA is not aiming to undertake crusades in order to uphold and promote democracy and liberty throughout the world, costs be damned. The Bush Doctrine (already in partial disuse during his second term) is now effectively dead. Unilateralist-sounding policies on the basis of «you are with us or against us» principles have been firmly abandoned. What has emerged is a more nuanced and pragmatic foreign policy that exhibits both continuities (partly because Bush’s last four years in the White House repudiated in practice many of his policies of the far more controversial first term), but also significant points of departure. At the peril of oversimplification, the cornerstones of US foreign policy under Obama are an emphasis on realist principles closely coupled with an avowed (but not indefinite) attempt to engage in various issues with allies and even adversaries. The basis of this approach (at least for the time being) is primarily formed by power calculations and national interest goals – not human rights priorities and democratic ideology (although they are never entirely ignored as evinced by the recent high-level emphasis on rapes in Congo). Thus, in the past few months, Washington has tried to «reset» relations with Russia, come closer to the Muslim and Arab world, essentially chose bases over democratic concerns in Kyrgyzstan and has also persisted on a course of engagement with Iran, even after apparent fraud in the recent presidential elections, brutally suppressed popular demonstrations and a possibly expanding nuclear program. To quote Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton: «We cannot be afraid or unwilling to engage. Our focus on diplomacy and development is not an alternative to our national security arsenal.» At the same time, it has also become evident that the Obama administration is actively seeking a strategic partnership with Turkey on a host of issues and in areas that include Iraq, Iran, Syria, Israel and Russia, and are thus at the very core of US considerations of national interest. Alarmingly from a Greek perspective, Barack Obama became the first sitting US president in almost half a century to visit Turkey without a concomitant visit to Greece. The question hence arises of how Athens should react and shape its foreign policy toward these new American priorities after the upcoming elections. In this author’s view, Greece should fully meet Washington’s willingness to engage allies with policies based on common interests and specifically delineated goals. The positive role of Greece in a series of regional issues should be both emphasized and actively pursued. Such an approach would necessarily have to transcend mere rhetoric and incorporate a series of concrete actions and proposals. Greek diplomacy can once again play a leading role within the European Union in pushing for the faster accession process of the region of the Western Balkans. What is required is nothing less than the updating and refinement of the June 2003 Thessaloniki declaration, which unequivocally stated that «the future of the Western Balkans is within the European Union.» Greece will also have to continue diplomatic negotiations aiming at the resolution of the Macedonia name dispute, though it is by now clear that the manifestations of extreme nationalism by FYROM’s Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski (often centering around a fixation with all things Alexander the Great) pose a formidable impediment to any final settlement. An intensified dialogue between the two sides at the UN level, further improvement of already excellent bilateral economic relations and reaching out to the country’s substantial Albanian minority could perhaps facilitate an agreement. Athens can try to ensure that significant regional issues continue to be on the agenda of various international organizations, especially that of the EU. Good relations with Belgrade and Tirana should allow Greece to assist in the resolution of a host of challenges. The ultimate aim remains the Western Balkans’ Euro-Atlantic integration with the concomitant political stability and economic growth that such an outcome will undoubtedly produce. In other words, Athens should send a message to Washington that it is willing and capable of constantly coming up with ideas and proposals aimed at ameliorating the currently acute and multifaceted problems of the Western Balkans. This will not only be much appreciated by the USA but is also in Greece’s highest national interest. Greece should also forcefully emphasize its contributions to NATO, including in Afghanistan, where possibly a larger presence might have to be contemplated in the near future. Furthermore, the seminal military importance of the Souda Bay military base in Crete should be stressed, and not just taken for granted but fully appreciated by the USA. Athens’s NATO role and also continuing support for Turkey’s EU accession should be seriously taken into account in the formulation of American policy toward Greek-Turkish relations. Finally, in dealing with Obama’s more realist-minded administration, Greeks both at home and in the diaspora will have to accept the fact that arguments on the basis of historical justice can only go so far. Alas, it is shared interests and not historical expositions that will probably carry the day. Ultimately, the emergence of an even more active and realist Greek foreign policy, carefully and constantly calibrating power realties, common interests and possible contributions, especially in the Balkans, will have to be the necessary corollary to a more realpolitik-inspired, pragmatic American foreign policy in the age of Obama. (1) Dr Aristotle Tziampiris is assistant professor of international relations at the University of Piraeus. His views are personal.

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