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US foreign policy: 'No we can't'?

By Paul Reynolds
BBC News, World Affairs correspondent

President Obama steps of a helicopter after a day of diplomatic talks in Mexicio (Aug 2009)
President Obama has been seeking out new ways of engaging other countries

Stand by for some new buzz phrases to describe what is going on in international relations as the first year of the Obama administration unfolds.

"Bundles of co-operation", "coalitions of the relevant" and "minilateralism" are some key ones. "Engagement" is another.

This new jargon is used as a kind of shorthand to portray the reinvigorated form of diplomacy that the United States is now pursuing, as it moves from being the only superpower to being the main player in a game in which others take part.

The phrases are used in the latest edition of the annual Strategic Survey, issued by the London think tank the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

In analysing how a "weakened" United States should lower its sights and try to form regional groupings to help it, the IISS Director General Dr John Chipman said: "Domestically, [President] Obama may have campaigned on the theme 'yes we can'; internationally he may increasingly have to argue 'no we can't'".

Iran is likely to test the theory of 'no drama Obama'

Another IISS analyst transferred a campaign description of Barack Obama into the foreign field and said he might become known as "no drama Obama".

'More cunning needed'

The IISS says: "Many of the ambitious foreign-policy agendas and practices established by the Western powers in the previous decade-and-a-half appear to be in retreat."

This, of course, is a reference to the "unilateralism" of the United States under President George W Bush.

But now the IISS wonders: "What appetite will there be for the 'nation-building' projects thought at once strategically necessary and morally desirable?"

A US soldiers patrols the streets of Kabul (Sept 2009)
More than 300 foreign soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan this year

It says that efforts in Afghanistan "will naturally become minimalist".

This might sound surprising in view of the recent surge in US troop numbers in Afghanistan and the possibility of more, but Mr Chipman said the mission might be "too sweeping to succeed" and needed "more cunning".

The "military footprint" in Afghanistan needed to be "more precise", he said.

But how, one wonders, will this mesh with the military's desire to take and hold ground, as has been going on in Helmand province? That inevitably means spreading the footprint very widely.

A "coalition of the relevant" in this case would involve bringing Russia, Iran, Central Asia, India and China into the debate.

Shadow of confrontation

The shadow of a confrontation with Iran is growing darker and to put together another "bundle of co-operation" for this crisis, the IISS is calling for regional players.

In this instance, notable names are Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey. The IISS wishes these countries to be involved in an "engagement with Iran to achieve a modus vivendi".

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visits the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, central Iran (Feb 2006)
Iran still asserts its nuclear ambitions are purely for civilian purposes

Easier said than done.

As for Iran's nuclear work, the report says that this might produce enough fissile material for two nuclear weapons by the end of 2009.

However, it treads carefully, describing the technical work that Iran has done without assuming that this will end up in a nuclear bomb.

It adds the caveat, for example, that further uranium enrichment "could not be done without tipping off the IAEA [the UN's nuclear agency], which regularly inspects the [enrichment] plant."

Iran is likely to test the theory of "no drama Obama".

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk



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