Can Obama Take No for an Answer?

In his WPR feature article from last November, A Grand Strategy Agenda for the Next President, Thomas PM Barnett defined President Obama’s challenge as leaving enough space between the security demands America makes of targeted nations and the “safe harbor” security guarantees it is willing to grant them so as to create the room for diplomatic maneuvering. Under the Bush administration, the lack of wiggle room between the two amounted to a demand for capitulation, and created standoffs everywhere.

The Bush administration’s response was a campaign of diplomatic and economic isolation (Syria and Iran), or else confrontation (Russia) with similar effects. But part of the danger of using isolation as a tool to weaken an adversary is that it often creates the opposite effect of “influence inflation,” especially in cases where the isolated country’s cooperation is needed to address common threats (terrorism, WMD proliferation), to advance either common (Middle East regional stability) or non-zero-sum (ousting Mugabe from power) interests, or to accomodate rival interests.

So implicit in what Barnett describes is the need tore-engage with countries like Russia, Syria, and eventually Iran,without paying too high a price for the cooperation we need from them. Which means that with all the heightened expectations for cooperation that the Obama administration has created, an important part of this “price-setting” period will require making it clear that Obama is willing to take no for an answer, and determining when to do so.

The advantage Obama has is that no one can really afford for him to fail. But it will be a delicate balancing act. Eight years of the Bush administration have made it painfully clear that the world really does need the U.S., and the U.S. really does need the world. The challenge of the coming year is to figure out how much.

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