The election of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States affords our country a chance to reverse its dismal standing in the world. The opportunity comes not a moment too soon. A recent opinion survey of America’s most trusted allies, carried out by eight leading international newspapers, revealed that after eight years of the George W. Bush presidency, America can no longer count on the friendship of even its closest neighbors. Only a minority of citizens in the countries surveyed, which included Canada, Britain, Mexico and France, described their country’s relations with the United States as “friendly.” In Britain, arguably America’s closest ally, over 65 percent of those surveyed said their view of the United States is worse or much worse since President Bush took office in 2001. In France and Canada, that number is more than 70 percent.
During the campaign Senator Obama acknowledged this global discontent, saying, “These are not the best of times for America’s reputation in the world,” while promising the American people and the world that the intransigent, America-first foreign policy of the Bush years would give way to a new approach based on “real strength and vision.” If Mr. Obama is to make that vision a reality, he must overcome a daunting set of challenges: two wars (one nearly universally unpopular, both draining the United States and its allies of blood and treasure), a global economic crisis and a planet in ecological peril. Yet Mr. Obama can take some dramatic steps in the next several months that would help to meet these challenges and reverse world opinion.
Mr. Obama’s choices for secretary of state and a new ambassadorial corps should signal a renewed commitment to engagement and public diplomacy and should indicate that the inflexibly ideological and self-interested policies of the current administration are relegated to the recycling bin of history. His selections for these posts should be men and women of ability and standing, professionals with the expertise in global diplomacy that the times require and who are not chosen simply to appease a wing of the party or to reward a generous political donor. This was too often the approach of the Clinton administration, which generally regarded foreign affairs as an afterthought. Mr. Obama took pains to say during the campaign that Mr. McCain’s election would amount to a third term for President Bush. Mr. Obama should ensure that his administration does not resemble a third term for Mr. Clinton.
Though Mr. Obama’s inaugural address will likely and appropriately focus on domestic concerns, he should not ignore foreign affairs. In fact, he should use the address to renounce unambiguously the Bush doctrine of preventive war. He should also unequivocally state that the United States will never again engage in the torture of its enemies, nor in semantic gymnastics in order to avoid illegality. An executive order closing the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, which has become a notorious stain on the nation’s honor, should quickly follow. Mr. Obama should also revive national support for a stronger, reformed United Nations system that can respond more effectively to the “duty to protect” crises that increasingly occupy global diplomacy in the 21st century—for example, in Myanmar, Darfur and eastern Congo.
Above all, the United States requires new approaches to the world’s seemingly intractable problems. Mr. Obama indicated during the campaign that he would meet with the leaders of some of the world’s authoritarian regimes without preconditions. This approach involves the kind of inventive thinking America’s diplomacy now requires. Yet Mr. Obama must be careful to balance engagement with realism. The Iranian nuclear standoff, relations with neo-imperial Russia, balancing economic and environmental concerns in our relations with China, facing down the warlords and endemic poverty in Africa, rebuilding the nuclear nonproliferation regime, kick-starting the Mideast peace process and redesigning international financial institutions will require sustained, multilateral and multidimensional solutions. Success will depend on coalitions built in a true spirit of strategic partnership, an uncommon occurrence in world affairs, and one that will also demand sacrifice.
Mr. Obama claimed during the campaign that he was the best choice because of his experience and expertise in bringing people together, raising not only our hopes but also the hopes of the world. “Obama represents something different,” Klas Bergman, an official at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, recently told The Guardian newspaper. “He seems ready to listen rather than dictate. That he’s African-American only adds to the mystique.” Long after the mystique has faded, as it inevitably will, let us hope that Mr. Obama’s potential has been fulfilled and the new era of international cooperation he has promised will have begun.