01/02/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's National Security Team

President-elect Obama used the word "pragmatism" twice while introducing his new national security team. "They share my pragmatism about the use of power," he said at one point.

He also used the word "partnership." While Mr. Obama, like all presidents, reserves America's right to act alone to defend our security and vital national interests, it's clear that he and his team see partnerships as a pragmatic and effective way to boost and extend America's influence.

The partnerships take three forms. The first is more cooperation among the departments of Defense and State and the Agency for International Development (AID) to promote U.S. interests abroad. Robert Gates, the current and future defense secretary, has complained for two years that the military is taking on too many tasks that diplomats and international development experts should perform because the Foreign Service and AID haven't grown enough in size or resources to meet new challenges.

Second, Mr. Obama said the U.S. will strengthen existing alliances and "forge new and enduring partnerships" to deal with today's complex, worldwide problems--promoting prosperity, fighting terrorism, reducing hunger and poverty, cooling global warming, controlling the spread of nuclear weapons, getting refugees home, and ending genocide. "None can be accomplished by America alone. We need capable partners," explained Susan Rice, Mr. Obama's choice to be U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.

The third partnership is working more effectively through the UN. While conceding that the UN is "imperfect," Mr. Obama also called it "indispensible" at his press conference today. While some members of the Bush administration often dismissed the UN as a large international bureaucracy, it is much more than a meeting place in New York. It is also a collection of humanitarian agencies--such as the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the World Food Program, UNICEF and UN peacekeeping--that are crucial to responding to natural and manmade disasters, such as the death and displacement in Darfur.

Two members of the Obama natural security team have strong humanitarian credentials--Susan Rice, who was Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs during the Clinton administration, and James Jones who, as a Marine colonel, participated in Operation Provide Comfort that saved the lives of tens of thousands of Kurds after the first Iraq war. There he worked with Fred Cuny, a legendary protector of displaced people. More than a decade later, Gen. Jones, then the military leader of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, worked to improve security in Afghanistan while five million Afghan refugees were returning home.

I have worked with both Susan Rice and Jim Jones. I expect that they and Senator Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State will be strong supporters of efforts to improve UN and U.S. abilities to respond to humanitarian disasters.

--Kenneth H. Bacon