Page last updated at 16:21 GMT, Monday, 9 February 2009

Insight: The new order?

Bridget Kendall
By Bridget Kendall
BBC diplomatic correspondent

The annual Munich security conference that took place this past weekend often serves as a moment to pinpoint important shifts in global perspectives.

Joe Biden
Joe Biden promised a listening, consulting presidency
This was where President Bush's Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, lashed out at America's European allies in the run up to the Iraq war in 2003, laying bare the gaping hole in Transatlantic relations.

This was where Russia's President Vladimir Putin delivered a full-scale rhetorical attack on the foreign policy of the United States in 2007 that sent shivers across Europe and made some wonder if a new Cold War was looming.

So this year's high level delegation from President Obama's security team, spearheaded by his vice-president Joe Biden, brought with it high expectations.

Were those hopes met? Well, judging by the applause worldwide that followed his speech, Yes. His promise of a new American tone, rooted in a listening, consulting presidency that believed in strong partnerships in an ever more complex world was given a warm welcome from Europe to the Middle East, from Russia to China. In most continents those with their ear cocked to Munich were largely enthusiastic.

Mood music

That's perhaps not surprising. In troubled times, it is natural to be hungry for a bit of positive certainty to light the way ahead. Many people want to believe that Barack Obama's hopeful campaign message of change can somehow deliver a magic formula.

But many have also noticed there was more mood music than concrete specifics.

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama
We still don't know the Obama line on a host of foreign policy problems
Echoing President Obama, the vice-president declared it was time to "press the reset button in relations with Russia" to halt "a dangerous drift".

But there was no unequivocal announcement of a strategic rethink over the controversial stationing in Europe of the missile defence shield that Russia is so opposed to, as some had predicted.

There was even a veiled warning to Russia that the United States would not accept the principle of a world divided into "spheres of influence" and that nations - like Georgia and Ukraine - should make up their own minds which alliances - like Nato - they decide to join.

And to Iran, though the offer of direct talks still stands, Mr Biden reinforced the same familiar policy line, that Tehran faces a clear choice between pursuing an illicit nuclear weapons programme or suspending it to enjoy the benefits of collaboration.

Sounds a bit like business as usual…

Bush legacy

The truth of the matter is that we still don't really know how the Obama administration plans to tackle a multitude of foreign policy problems. Some officials are only just starting their jobs.

Across the board policy reviews are still being conducted. And the new administration's envoys and aides are still getting to grips with the legacy the Bush administration has left them, making early visits to hotspots on the ground to test the quagmire of detail that makes any solution so elusive.

Bridget Kendall
Bridget Kendall
1998 to present: BBC diplomatic correspondent
1994-98: Washington correspondent
1989-94: Moscow correspondent

"I've never seen anything like the mess we have inherited," said Richard Holbrooke, the administration's new point man on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"In my view it's going to be much tougher than Iraq. It's going to be a long, difficult struggle."

In theory, it appears there is plenty of room for policy shifts. Not because the Obama team needs to be particularly radical. But because the Bush Presidency (now it is possible to look back over his eight year's in office as a whole) was - in the view of many experts- an extraordinarily conservative era in American foreign policy.

Even given the modified version of policy during Mr Bush's second term, with Condoleezza Rice in charge as chief diplomat, the basis for dealing with the rest of the world still adhered to unusually clear-cut precepts.

Remember the simple language of so many presidential speeches?

  • That there is a clear black and white view of what is right or wrong
  • That to talk to America's enemies would be to legitimise them and admit to weakness, (although North Korea, of course, successfully subverted that principle by dropping a heavy hint of nuclear blackmail, and for the same reason the Bush administration did begin to unbend on the issue of direct talks with Iran)
  • That when it came to securing US national interests, or making sure that it retained its global lead, the United States retained the right to walk out of international treaties or bypass international organisations
  • And in extreme cases, the US was prepared to exercise its global power to use military force, even on occasion unilaterally.

Compare that with the nuanced, multilateral approach being promised by the new administration. Surely it does suggest a real change of direction in global politics.

But will it really?

The abyss

The doubt over what any new American global leadership will mean does not only come from President Obama's newness. It also comes from the uncertainty that spills over into every crevice of policy in every country, given the gravity of the world's economic crisis.

The political knock-on effects of the economic downturn are already beginning to display unexpected strains and shifts
Mr Obama is understandably distracted by the economic crisis at home. It ties his hands when it comes to funding. (Though some say squeezed federal finances could be an excuse to be turned to diplomatic advantage. Note that Mr Biden in Munich carefully said the US would continue to develop the missile shield "provided the technology is proven and it is cost-effective".)

For Mr Obama to spend time and money on the rest of the world may be hard to explain to the American people when they survey mounting closures and rising unemployment.

But those strains, too, are beginning to tell on the rest of the world. Economic and political confusion have combined to create an abyss that none of us wants to peer into.

The frightening conclusion of the gathering of business and political elites in Davos last month was not only that they had in no way foreseen this financial crisis, but that they had no idea how deep it would go or how far its tentacles would pull the entire globe into a downward spiral.

And the political knock-on effects of the economic downturn are already beginning to display unexpected strains and shifts.

The recent strikes in France, wildcat walkouts in Britain and street protests in Russia are all a reminder of the new domestic pressures governments are coming under which feed a potential growth in protectionist xenophobia.

Bargaining chip

In theory all governments agree with the head of the World Trade Organization that putting up trade barriers will only worsen the economic crisis for all.

US soldier in vehicle after Taleban attack
Russia has told the US it cannot take its Afghan supply route for granted
In practice, in many countries urgent measures to shore up local industries - like the national car giants in the USA - are already being denounced by competitors as thinly veiled protectionist policies.

This just goes to show how swiftly domestic pressure to save jobs can contradict the noble intent to pursue a global agenda for common good.

In elections, we are told, time and time again, people "vote with their pocket books". In times of economic duress, the instinct is surely to look after number one.

What is more, economic pressures intertwine with security considerations.

Think only of the dramatic announcement last week that Kyrgyzstan has decided to close the last remaining permanent American military base in Central Asia - a vital supply route to Afghanistan at a time when the new US administration is planning to double its military presence there, and when overland supply routes from the south through Pakistan and the Khyber Pass are now facing a growing threat from an invigorated Taleban.

Kyrgyzstan denies that its decision is linked to Russia's recent promise to allocate it $2bn in aid. But - like many of the former Soviet republics - Kyrgyzstan is suffering from economic woes.

And we know why Russia would want to take this step. Last year it even publicly warned the United States not to take its northern supply route through Russia's backyard to Afghanistan for granted. Now Moscow may calculate it has given itself a useful bargaining chip when it comes to negotiations with the new team in Washington - and Nato -on a host of thorny disagreements.


Are we glimpsing the start of a new and unsettling pattern of "pocket book diplomacy"?

A Kyrgyz shepherd
In uncertain times, Russian aid looks ever more attractive to Kyrgyzstan
It is not just Kyrgyzstan that is suffering. Belarus is in trouble economically. Kazakhstan, once so confident of rich takings from its energy supplies, has seen its profits subside as oil prices have plummeted.

The Russian economy is on shakier ground than it was too. But this has not stopped the Kremlin moving swiftly to offer aid packages to its neighbours.

Mr Biden may warn that the United States disapproves of the notion of spheres of influence for Russia.

But if in hard economic times, money talks - in the shape of loans and aid packages, can the US afford not to get into the same game as its old Cold War adversary?

But there is an even bigger concern when it comes to the impact of economic strains on international ties.

Mr Biden's outreach to America's allies in Europe was also the promise of a new and stronger partnership. But he made clear the United States would expect more in return. So far, European nations lining up to offer more troops for Afghanistan or offering to take the unwanted prisoners from Guantanamo Bay have not been exactly resounding.

It doesn't bode well.

The ideal is a new spirit of collaboration, whether to re-forge a new financial order at the G20 summit in April or to lay the groundwork for a new era of peaceful coexistence. "We are all in the same boat," goes the argument. "We must pull together."

But the reality might be that in tough times, competition and rivalry is more likely to be the new order.

You can listen to the BBC World Service's The Forum with Bridget Kendall here.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Even though I had been vehemently opposed to Bush's policy of "go it alone", the tag of "business as usual" applies just as much to Europe as it does to the US. Europe can't expect the US to come to their aid everytime they have a problem, whether it be international terrorism or the growing dominance of Russia, unless they are willing to step up to the plate and be true allies when the US needs them as well.
Brian, Tulsa USA

There should be no claim of Spheres of Influence in the post-imperial world, but it is obvious that we need Russia's cooperation on Afganistan, and we need China's cooperation of North Korea. You cannot deny that there are dominant powers in the world that's economic and military power influences its neighbors. What is going on in the Middle-east is not just America's problem, especially since European countries were meddling in their affairs long before America was.
Michael Burridge , Albany, NY USA

The Cold War is over. The smart move is for NATO to invite Russia into its membership. New realities require new alliances. Economic cooperation will fall into place as mutual security is resolved.
Burt, Kew Gardens, NY, USA

That is it exactly. US is seeing some rough times - Russia does too, but not nearly as bad as US of A and Russia knows it. They will do everything to assert itself. States army is strained and they're borderline bankrupt. Russia knows that once States pull out of Afganistan and Iran they will jump back on their feet. So for Russia now is the time. The defining moment that will decide who will "Back off" will be Czec/Polish missles. Time will tell.
V, Toronto. Canada

Richard Perle (remember him?) has already prophesized that Obama's first term will look like "Bush's third". Perle is on track so far.
j. p. ward, Vlaardingen The Netherlands

It would seem that the time for rivalries between nations, such as Russia and the US, is over. In the age of a global economy nations simply cannot afford to sever ties or to claim spheres of influence similar to how it was done years ago (Monroe Doctrine, Cold War, etc.) Hopefully the new leadership in America will indeed have a change of tone in the foriegn policy and allow negotiations to resume; at least the new government seems to realize there is more than "black and white" or "good and evil" in the world.
Adam Renner, Anderson, IN-United States

It shouldn't come as a surprise to the new US administration that european allies will want to see the extent of the shift in US foreign policy before pledging more support in Afghanistan, either economically or military. the money spent on extra aid is now more precious than ever. likewise, Russia will attempt to assert herself as much as possible before seeing the shape of this "new america". Obama can't depend on his words doing all the talking in the months and years ahead.
John Kjeken, oslo, norway

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