The headlines on President Obama accepting the Nobel Peace Prize last week focused on the apparent irony: A man who had just ordered 30,000 more troops into war was snagging a trophy as the world’s leading champion of peace. Obama tackled the paradox head-on in his Oslo speech. “Evil does exist in the world,” he said. “War is sometimes necessary.”
But the president’s speech was about much more than the regrettable necessity of war. It also contained the fullest exposition so far of Obama’s evolving approach to global diplomacy, including his attempts at “engagement” with hostile regimes in places such as Iran, North Korea and Sudan -- in other words, the emerging Obama doctrine.
“I know that engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation,” he said. “But I also know that . . . no repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door.”
And when diplomacy fails, Obama said, the United States and other big powers must apply serious sanctions against rogue regimes -- “alternatives to violence that are tough enough to actually change behavior.”
There are two propositions there -- engagement and sanctions -- and neither one has been proved to work yet. Turning them into practical action will be the test of whether the Obama doctrine works.
First, engagement. One of Obama’s main foreign policy promises in last year’s presidential campaign was that unlike George W. Bush, he wouldn’t threaten hostile countries with regime change; he’d talk to them instead. In his first months, Obama opened more-direct talks with Iran and North Korea over their nuclear arsenals and with Sudan and Myanmar over human rights.
At the same time, Obama downplayed public criticism of repressive governments whose help he needed on diplomatic issues. He ducked a meeting with the Dalai Lama to avoid offending China. He called Egypt’s president for life, Hosni Mubarak, “a force for stability and good.” He sent a special envoy to Sudan who tried to deal gently with a regime that has waged genocide in Darfur.
All that courtesy toward dictators alarmed human rights activists, who worried that Obama was taking U.S. diplomacy back toward what they consider the amoral “realism” of Henry Kissinger and the Cold War.
“Engagement without pressure is read by authoritarian governments as capitulation,” Human Rights Watch’s executive director, Kenneth Roth, said in an interview. Jamie Rubin, a former State Department spokesman in the Clinton administration, wrote in a Newsweek column: “There was a time when presidents gained political strength from upholding democratic values.”
The Obama administration’s response boils down to one word: patience. “This isn’t a disagreement over values; it’s a disagreement over means,” an Obama aide told me. “Chest-thumping hasn’t made people’s lives better at the end of the day. . . . Give us some time.”
But so far, engagement hasn’t yielded much in the way of tangible results. And that’s where sanctions come in under the Obama doctrine.
In Oslo, Obama said it was time “to insist that nations like Iran and North Korea do not game the system. Those who claim to respect international law cannot avert their eyes when those laws are flouted.
“When there is genocide in Darfur, systematic rape in Congo, repression in Burma, there must be consequences. Yes, there will be engagement; yes, there will be diplomacy; but there must be consequences when these things fail.”
But this approach can’t guarantee results either. The history of international sanctions lists more failures than successes. It’s hard to design sanctions that can change a regime’s behavior, hard to enlist other countries to participate, and hard to enforce the measures once they’re in place.
To take three important cases Obama mentioned:
The United Nations has imposed tough sanctions on North Korea, but the Pyongyang regime is already so isolated that it seems almost indifferent to the pressure.
The U.N. has imposed sanctions on Sudan too, but China -- which has nurtured a lucrative oil business relationship with the Khartoum regime -- has blocked attempts to make them tougher. As a result, the Obama administration has explored a form of “reverse sanctions,” offering undisclosed incentives if Sudan improves the human rights situation in Darfur and implements a peace agreement in its southern region. So far, though, the approach has achieved little.
And on Iran, Obama is about to mount a drive for what Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton once called “crippling sanctions” to punish the Tehran regime for producing enriched uranium that could be used for nuclear weapons. But
diplomats warn that the road to imposing sanctions will be long and hard, and there’s no guarantee that the measures will ever get close to crippling.
In two major foreign policy speeches in the last two weeks, Obama has added more details to his evolving foreign policy blueprint.
At West Point, he explained why he was escalating the war in Afghanistan, but he called it a unique case and said the United States didn’t have the resources to use military force everywhere in the world.
At Oslo, he offered the rest of the world a bargain: The United States will engage diplomatically and act multilaterally, but it needs the help of others to make it work.
But the test of the Obama doctrine -- as its author says himself -- will be whether it gets results.