President Barack Obama delivered one of his trademark big speeches Sunday in Prague, discussing nuclear weapons, geopolitical challenges, and green technology.
President Barack Obama's just concluded big international tour is part of a major reshuffling in geopolitics. Here are 10 key takeaways from happenings in and around his trip.
(1) The G-20 is now the main global economic forum, but coordination and real action is still limited. It used to be the G-7 or G-8 -- G-7 (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States) plus Russia -- that was the main international economic body. Little was accomplished. Now the more expansive G-20 is the big deal, as we just saw with its London summit. With the financial and economic crises global, the usual rhetorical inaction wasn't an option.
But accomplishments were limited. Most of the European members, aside from Britain, didn't want to do a big coordinated economic stimulus program. They have extensive social welfare cushions already in place, and carry debt loads much higher than America's. And Germany may want to recover by exporting to a recovering American economy.
Still, Obama and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown got over a trillion dollars in new support for the global economy, both to help prop up smaller nations and to help larger troubled economies like Mexico and Eastern Europe, staving off even bigger problems. And they got some more focus on transnational financial regulation, though not the global regime that neither actually wants, as the financial elites of New York and London have no desire to be governed by a global body.
Despite the atmospherics of its 60th anniversary summit, NATO's long-range future is very clouded.
(2) NATO's future is winding down. There were great atmospherics around NATO's 60th anniversary summit over the weekend. Obama, joined by French, German, and other national leaders, walked across the border between Germany and France. Then they walked back across the border between France and Germany. There was a big commemorative concert. There was a dinner with many toasts. There was Obama, asking for lots of military help in Afghanistan -- an ongoing NATO mission -- and not getting very much. Though he got more than Bush was able to get.
NATO is an organization that achieved its objectives when the Soviet Union crippled itself in Afghanistan and the Berlin Wall was taken down, reduced to shards for Cold War collectors. In part because NATO existed, the Soviets never, as was long feared, came storming through the Fulda Gap. As a relic of the Cold War, it's never found a truly animating raison d'etre. Obama will get what he can from it, as long as it lasts, but he could do much the same with bilateral contacts with some of its members.
(3) Obama will be friendly with Russia but drive a hard bargain. Obama goes to Moscow for a full-scale summit in July. After their mini-summit last week in London, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev called Obama "my new comrade." But, while Obama is part of the NATO consensus freezing the old Bush/Cheney plan to extend NATO membership to Georgia and Ukraine, he isn't giving way on the anti-missile shield -- supposedly aimed at Iran but strongly suspected in Moscow of being an attempted check on Russia's nuclear capability -- in Poland and the Czech Republic, even though the program is unpopular there. The US wants more help with Afghanistan and Iran, but has cards to play to drive a harder bargain than some think.
Russia is a great power again, but not a superpower. And its economic problems with the fall in the price of oil and other commodities makes any efforts to become a superpower again highly problematic. Obama and his advisors know this. And while they seem sympathetic to Russia's concerns about past efforts to encroach on Russia's "near abroad" through NATO expansion right up to the Russian border, they don't seem willing to let, say, Poland slip back under Moscow's umbrella.
Obama demonstrated his rapport with American troops in Iraq.
(4) The new defense budget isn't what the left wants or the right fears. While Obama was in Turkey early in the week, Defense Secretary Bob Gates began unveiling the new defense budget. It's not a big cutback on defense, as the far right falsely claims, it's a cutback from the incredible wish list that the service chiefs and military contractors devised in the last year of the Bush/Cheney Administration. It's not a cut at all, confounding some on the left by increasing spending by $21 billion.
What Gates and, by extension, Obama and the rest of his national security leadership team are doing is cutting back on more futuristic weapons systems and focusing on spending for here-and-now military challenges. For example, jet fighter production continues but with an emphasis on aircraft that can play a big role in strikes against ground targets and not on futuristic stealth fighters to meet non-existent threats in the air. Ship-building continues but with an emphasis on vessels that are useful in combat near coastlines rather than countering non-existent deep water threats. (Though the number of aircraft carriers will only decline from 11 to 10.) Missile defense continues, but the focus is on improving existing tech for interception after the more challenging launch phase. Futuristic ground-fighting systems are scaled back but the size of the Army and Marine Corps actually increases. By the way, this is all consistent with what Obama campaigned on.
(5) Nuclear weapons will be reduced but not eliminated. This provides a great context for global cooperation. Obama spoke movingly on Sunday in Prague of the need to finally roll back the threat of nuclear annihilation. But he also said he didn't see nuclear weapons being eliminated in his lifetime. The technological genie is out of the bottle. However, the weapons are not at all easy to make, witness the fact that Iran still doesn't have a nuclear device, much less an actual weapon, after years of worry about it.
Nuclear weapons are a good issue for America and Russia and other nations to work on. Both Washington and Moscow have aging arsenals, with weapons in need of retirement. Neither has an interest in more countries becoming nuclear powers. And they all look good in the process.
As he fights Al Qaeda and the Taliban, Obama seeks to engage the more moderate mainstream Islamic world, declaring in his address to the Turkish Parliament that "The United States is not and never will be at war with Islam."
(6) The Afghan Taliban are offering compromises before the Obama surge kicks in. After Obama announced his new Afghanistan/Pakistan strategy and as he was beginning his tour, the Afghan Taliban offered a little-noticed set of compromises. Among other things, they changed their tune. To allow tunes.
Now in talks with the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the official Afghan Taliban position has shifted significantly. They are now willing to have only partial control of the country's governance through rule in part of the country by religious scholars. The Taliban have dropped their demands to the end of education for females and for females to wear burqas in public. (They would be "strongly recommended.") Pop music would not be banned and men's beards would not have a mandatory length.
Foreign forces would have to be witdrawn in six months and most -- though not all -- names on anti-Taliban watch lists would have to be guaranteed safety. Clearly, some of this is a non-starter. But it's interesting that the Taliban have altered their demands so significantly prior to the start of the American offensive against them.
(7) If that's a pretty good sign, let's go to a bad one. Pakistani intransigence is a serious problem for Obama's strategy. Obama's success in Afghanistan is tied to the stability and willingness of the Pakistani government. While Pakistan's leaders said during Obama's tour that it supports Obama's new strategy, they also denied the longstanding linkages between the dread ISI intelligence service and the Taliban (which it essentially created), claimed that deposed Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar is not in Pakistan, urged that the US stop aerial drone attacks against Al Qaeda and Taliban cadre inside Pakistan, and cut deals with Pakistani jihadist leaders.
Pakistan is in the midst of a slow-rolling jihadist uprising, and Obama is going to have a difficult balancing act between helping stabilize the government and eliminating the hidey holes of Al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban cadre.
(8) The new Afghan laws on women illustrate the fallacy of nation-building, and demonstrate the bind of Obama's policy. The new laws passed by the pro-American government in Kabul are a rollback and a sop to traditionalist, fundamentalist feeling in Afghanistan. It's a dramatic example of why full-scale nation-building in Afghanistan, which the new Obama strategy skirts (without embracing) even though the president says the mission to get Al Qaeda, is so problematic.
Obama visited Aya Sofia in Istanbul, a famed mosque-turned-museum.
(9) The Turkey trip was the most important for the long haul. Obama seems to see Turkey, which has friendly relations with Israel, as potentially a much more important strategic partner than any other NATO nation, perhaps even Britain. Turkey is arguably the most powerful militarily and the most balanced economically in the Islamic world, and perhaps the most stable. And unlike Saudi Arabia, it hasn't had a vested interest in feeding and off-loading homegrown jihadists to wreak havoc elsewhere in the world. In the new emerging Obama conception of geopolitics, it may be that it is Turkey, strategically situated on the Bosporus, which provides even more needed help with the newer crises of Afghanistan and Pakistan and the traditional crises of the Middle East, as well as a watchful counterweight to Russia.
And Turkey is a Muslim nation. Obama can highlight this alliance as a means of reaching out to the entire Islamic world.
(10) Iran has to be engaged but may not be very helpful. The Bush/Cheney Administration followed the rather bizarre neoconservative doctrine that opponents are not be talked with, oddly ignoring the repeated high-profile talks with the Soviet Union during the Cold War which did much to keep a lid on very high tensions. Of course, the Bush/Cheney team did talk with Iran, just generally in private ways.
Now the Obama Administration is directly and publicly engaging Iran. Obama did his video address for a traditional Persian holiday, special envoy Richard Holbroke spoke with a top Iranian official at last week's conference on Afghanistan (where Iran may be helpful), The US will take part with other permanent UN Security Council members and Germany in talks with Iran on its nuclear program. The US also has an interest in dealing with Iran to keep Iraq stable so American forces can be redeployed for Afghanistan and other potential challenges.
Will Iran halt its nuclear weapons program? We don't know. It doesn't seem to be nearly as far along as neocon hysteria, generally wrong-headed, suggests. How helpful will Iran be with Afghanistan, where it helped greatly in 2001, and Iraq, where it has frequently been very mischievous? We don't know.
There's a lot we still don't know. The future, as always, is a moving target, and the Obama Administration is still probing a complex and changing geopolitical system.