What Obama's grip and grin with Hugo Chávez says about his foreign policy.

Military analysis.
April 21 2009 5:19 PM

Handshake Diplomacy

What Obama's grip and grin with Hugo Chávez says about his foreign policy.

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NBC's Chuck Todd posed the question at the summit's-end press conference: "After observing you on the world stage the last three weeks, what are the pillars of 'the Obama doctrine'?"

Obama poked fun at the loftiness of the phrase, but then said, "There are a couple of principles that I've tried to apply across the board."

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First, he said, the United States is the most powerful nation on earth, but today's problems can't be solved by just one country. So we have to "listen and not just talk," recognizing "that other countries have good ideas, too, and we want to hear them."

Second, the United States "at our best" represents "a set of universal values and ideals"—democracy, freedom of speech, the idea of a civil society. But since other countries have different cultures, perspectives, and histories, "we do our best to promote our ideals and our values" not by imposing them or by lecturing but rather "by our example." Therefore, Obama went on,

if we are practicing what we preach and if we occasionally confess to having strayed from our values and our ideals, that strengthens our hand; that allows us to speak with greater moral force and clarity around these issues.

Many of Obama's critics seriously underestimate this issue; they don't detect the great relief of our allies, or the discomfort of our enemies, when—after eight years of insufferable self-righteousness—an American president acknowledges mortal flaws and misjudgments; as long as it's not accompanied by self-flagellation, this is the exact opposite of "weakness."

Then Obama came to the point. Merely talking and listening won't transform international politics, he acknowledged. "Countries are going to have interests," he said; sometimes their interests will diverge from ours, and a more diplomatic approach to foreign policy won't make those differences disappear, won't make other countries alter their interests. However, he continued:

What it does mean, though, is, at the margins, they are more likely to want to cooperate than not cooperate. It means that where there is resistance to a particular set of policies that we're pursuing, that resistance may turn out just to be based on old preconceptions or ideological dogmas that, when they're cleared away, it turns out that we can actually solve a problem.

And so, we're still going to have very tough negotiations on a whole host of issues. … That's not going to change because I'm popular … or leaders think that I've been respectful towards them. On the other hand, by having established those better relations, it means that … there's more confidence that working with the United States is beneficial, and they are going to try to do more than they might otherwise have done.

One result of the summit, he continued, is that it's now easier for friends, like Mexico or Colombia, to work with the United States "because their neighbors and their populations see us as a force for good or at least not a force for ill."

As for less-friendly countries like Venezuela, though Obama did not say so, an unthreatening picture of America at the very least takes the wind out of Chávez, who has built power, at home and in some quarters abroad, by waving his fist at America and likening George Bush to "el diablo." And, who knows, it might maneuver Chávez more into our lane, too. "Even within this imaginative crowd," Obama said to the press corps, "I think you would be hard-pressed to paint a scenario in which U.S. interests would be damaged as a consequence of … having a more constructive relationship with Venezuela."

And so, Obama's talk of building alliances and listening to others is not a celebration of multilateralism for its own sake. It's a hard-headed formula for advancing U.S. interests in a world where we have less leverage than we did during Cold War times to impose our will on a whim. There isn't quite yet an "Obama doctrine," as he would no doubt acknowledge. More time and a couple of crises will be needed to see how he translates his ideas into action. But for the moment, his words—and, yes, his handshakes—reflect a realism, in the best sense of the word, as opposed to the crackpot-realist daydreams of an obsessive ex-vice president and the historical cluelessness of certain newscasters.