Page last updated at 00:35 GMT, Monday, 13 July 2009 01:35 UK

Obama engages the world

By Michael Zubrow

Barack Obama shakes hands after addressing Ghana's parliament in Accra, 11 July
Mr Obama used his Ghana visit to speak to all Africans

With a series of rousing international speeches, President Barack Obama has definitively recast American foreign policy, shunning the Bush administration's leadership-centric diplomacy and engaging directly with the people of the world.

In Prague, in Cairo, in Moscow and now in Accra, Mr Obama has translated his campaign message of shared values, hopes and dreams into an ambitious foreign policy agenda.

He has rejected calls from within the US for an inward turn.

Even as the international economy deteriorates and challenges to American power loom ever larger, Mr Obama has chosen to vigorously push for two grand goals - a world free of nuclear weapons, and the spread of good governance and development.

This, then, is the bold but simple approach of the Obama administration - rally the people of the world to take on the most challenging issues of our generation.

Public diplomacy

Barack Obama's weapon of choice is public diplomacy, speaking plainly and persuasively, directly to the people.


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While President George W Bush was well known for relying on close relationships with heads of state, President Obama's rhetoric is aimed at the ruling elite and the common citizen alike.

In Cairo and Moscow, Obama spoke at prestigious local universities to highlight the importance of future generations that are growing more interconnected and interdependent by the day.

In Prague he referred to the strength of the people of a different generation, exclaiming: "That's why I'm speaking to you in the centre of a Europe that is peaceful, united and free - because ordinary people believed that divisions could be bridged, even when their leaders did not."

Mr Obama's outreach has not been limited to international speeches.

His use of public diplomacy has included a message to the Iranian people on Nowruz (the New Year holiday) and the vastly expanded use of technology to communicate with the world.

New emphasis

The focus of Mr Obama's ambitions is also a marked change from the Bush administration.

While the Bush administration was consumed by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mr Obama's major international speeches have largely ignored those deeply unpopular conflicts, instead focusing on the grand vision of reducing nuclear weapons and spreading good governance.

In Prague, Mr Obama spoke of the path to a nuclear-free world and his determination to foster "the right of people everywhere to live free from fear in the 21st Century".

President Obama has made one thing overwhelmingly clear - America's participation in solving the most challenging issues of our day is not optional

In Cairo, he directly took on the issue of an Iranian nuclear programme, linking non-proliferation to America's responsibility to draw down its own nuclear arsenal.

In Moscow, Mr Obama turned his words into action, securing further progress on joint Russian-American nuclear reductions.

The challenge of nuclear proliferation is hardly new, but rarely has it received such sustained presidential attention since the Reagan-Gorbachev era.

Mr Obama's attention to global governance is another departure from President Bush's freedom agenda.

Instead of the former administration's overwhelming focus on elections as a panacea for better governance, Mr Obama stresses the importance of institutions.

In Accra, Mr Obama called for institutions that are transparent and reliable, noting that good governance is "about more than holding elections - it's also about what happens between them".

Indeed, the administration's choice of Ghana for the president's first trip to sub-Saharan Africa was instructive.

Bypassing Kenya, the homeland of his father, Mr Obama cited Ghana's institutions and stability as a model for Africa.

Shared values

Even without these two bold goals, Mr Obama's plate is more than full.

He faces two wars, nuclear challenges from Pyongyang and Tehran, a continually evolving extremist threat and a daunting set of domestic problems.

The administration's ambition (and focus) extends beyond these challenges to diverse issues like Middle East peace and global climate change.

But President Obama has made one thing overwhelmingly clear - America's participation in solving the most challenging issues of our day is not optional.

These problems threaten the peace and stability of the world and we simply cannot pass them off to the next generation.

The future President Obama describes is one where America leads through example, not intervention.

His approach emphasises the emergence and importance of local organisations and institutions contributing to solving global problems.

With the US tied down in two wars and beset by economic hardship, Mr Obama envisions a different type of American leadership.

By emphasising shared values and interests he hopes to spark a renewed interest in mutual responsibility and coordinated global action. In these complex times only global action can bring global results.

Michael Zubrow is a foreign policy expert at the Center for a New American Security, a non-partisan, independent, national security think tank in Washington, DC.

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