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Ilan Goldenberg

Ilan Goldenberg

Posted April 3, 2009 | 06:24 PM (EST)

What Real Diplomacy Looks Like


Barack Obama showed up in Europe this week and the world did not simply swoon at his feet.  Some may choose to portray that as failure, but they would be dead wrong.  Diplomacy is about interests and hard bargaining to find areas of common understanding.  No matter how popular he may be around the world, the President was never going to be able to repair eight years of damage in only three months.  And he wasn't going to change the fact that sometimes the United States and other countries have conflicting interests.  But what we saw this week, after years where personal relationships and saber-rattling often substituted for foreign policy, were significant steps on a number of fronts.  In fact, since the invasion of Iraq more than six years ago it's hard to remember such a positive week for American diplomacy.

First, the G20 summit set the framework for global actions that will help address the current financial crisis and put more checks in place to ensure that a similar crisis does not occur.  The Obama administration did not get support for the global stimulus package it was looking for, but it did get a dramatic increase in funding for the IMF from $250 billion to $750 billion and an overall commitment of $1.1 trillion to help support the global economy.  This was a critical step as the IMF acts as a lender of last resort and plays a crucial role in preventing countries from failing during financial crises.  The world also comes away from this conference with new agreements on international regulations of financial institutions and a strong statement opposing protectionism.  Is it everything that we might have liked to have seen come out of the G20 summit?  No.  But you never get everything that you want out of a summit of 20 countries and the steps that were taken are crucially important.

Second, rather than looking into Medvedev's soul Barack Obama sat down with him and hammered out a path forward based on common interest.  The joint statement released by Obama and Medvedev was realistic but far reaching and set the road ahead for negotiations on a number of issues.  It recognized that there were issues where the United States and Russia would not agree, but it also set out an aggressive agenda on issues of nuclear non proliferation - issues that are absolutely crucial to both countries' security as well as that of the world.  The statement concluded:

In just a few months we have worked hard to establish a new tone in our relations. Now it is time to get down to business and translate our warm words into actual achievements of benefit to Russia, the United States, and all those around the world interested in peace and prosperity.


This doesn't mean that Russian-American tensions will disappear overnight.  But it is a far cry from where the United States and Russia were eight months ago after the conflict in Georgia essentially froze relations.

On Afghanistan we have also seen important movement in the right direction.  The international conference at the Hague earlier this week served to further internationalize support for the conflict.  And though it was only a first step it was an important one.  It also included recognition from the Obama administration that rather than loudly asking for troops, we ask for other types of support in Afghanistan.  After all, the U.S. has the most powerful military in the world. What it lacks is the civilian capabilities that are so critical for the mission in Afghanistan.  Many of our allies happen to have these types of capabilities and it is something they are willing to contribute.  This isn't just diplomacy, it's common sense.

Finally, the administration continued its outreach to Iran this week.  Iran was invited to the Hague conference and pledged to work to curb narcotics trafficking out of Afghanistan while also providing more humanitarian aid.  During the conference Richard Holbrooke, the Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, had a face to face conversation with the Iranian representative - the highest level interaction between the Obama administration and Iran.  This is only a small step, but a positive one in preparing for greater engagement going forward.

Barack Obama's administration did not redraw the geopolitical map this week.  We are still in the middle of a major financial mess.  America's position in the world is not what it was eight years ago.  But the administration did show that when the United States is not politically radioactive,  thinks seriously about its interests, and takes the time to listen, it can get important things done via diplomacy.