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Obama at one year: new realism in foreign policy

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In some ways, it is a surprisingly hawkish vision, in the image of Democrats like Franklin Roosevelt – who fought and won a terrible world war, and then founded the United Nations. But it is also internationalist and multilateralist, like George Bush – the father, not the son – and it is realist like Richard Nixon, who wound down an unpopular war and dared to engage what was then called Red China.

Obama’s is a world of two wars – one of which he has decided to escalate, though (he hopes) for a limited time. It is a world where America will do battle with a violent and stateless adversary not subject to dialogue and negotiation, though in a form that is clipped and less ideological as compared with his predecessor’s.

As his response to the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner suggests, this is now less a war on terror than a multifaceted national security battle that hinges on intelligence, global cooperation, and police work.

It is a world of regimes lusting for the very nuclear weapons he would eradicate. Obama confronts all this within a reality he sees of an America of finite means and still-unique, though waning, power – and thus an America that will have to rely more on leading by example than by imposition.

“This is a president and foreign-policy team who are very pragmatic, driven by the need to solve problems, and are therefore not out looking for some new template to guide the United States,” says Charles Kupchan, a foreign-policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “The guiding rule of thumb seems to be, ‘What’s the problem, how do we fix it, and who’s going to help us fix it?’ Questions like regime type and ideology are playing a much smaller role than before.”

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