On track on foreign policy

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised he would end our diplomatic isolation and pursue “engagement” in foreign affairs. His opponent tried to turn his proposal against him by saying it would be reckless and naive. Obama regarded his election as a mandate for engagement, and no campaign promise has been more faithfully carried out by his administration.

Engagement is not in itself foreign policy. But it is a crucial part of the process by which we seek to advance our international goals, and one in which the country can and should invest great human and political capital.

When former Sen. George Mitchell begins his “proximity” talks with the Israelis and Palestinians next week — discussions between the parties through an intermediary rather than face to face — the United States will enter a new and difficult phase of Obama’s policy of engagement. The atmosphere is far from promising. For many years, the parties met regularly in correct if not cordial discussion. But rancor over settlement expansion has kept them apart for the last year. Breaking the impasse and restoring face-to-face meetings will require all the creativity and patience that Mitchell showed in his successful peace talks in Ireland.

During the Clinton administration, I made 20 trips to the region for proximity talks to try to broker a deal for the return of the Golan Heights to Syria, an effort that revealed all the weaknesses of proximity talks. The absence of confidence-building, face-to-face discussions between those at the highest ranks contributed to the inability of Syrian President Hafez Assad to overcome his paranoia over Israel’s intention. The assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on Nov. 4, 1995, similarly deprived the negotiations of his essential authority. In the end, even our strenuous efforts could not put the talks back on track.

Beyond Mitchell’s efforts, Obama has been using engagement in pursuit of his foreign policy goals. One of the president’s chief goals, as he said on receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, is “to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, and to seek a world without them.” His personal intervention in talks with President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia was instrumental in finalizing a replacement agreement for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which expired in December. The signing in Prague last month was a tribute to their mutual engagement, producing major reductions in both nation’s nuclear arsenals as well as advancing U.S.-Russian ties in general.

The priority that Obama is giving to engagement has also been apparent in recent exchanges with China. The president, unhappy when the Chinese sent lower-level diplomats to meet with him at the climate change summit in Copenhagen, announced an arms sale package for Taiwan. The Chinese objected stridently.

To prevent the exchanges from spinning out of control, the president sent Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg to Beijing to reassure the Chinese that we adhere to the one-China policy and do not support independence for Taiwan or Tibet. The Chinese responded by announcing that President Hu Jintao would come to Washington for a nuclear summit, and, when he was here, Hu said that China was open to considering new sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program — a key development.

Improvement in human rights has been the policy goal of recent engagement with the repressive nation of Myanmar. Late last year, two senior U.S. diplomats went to Myanmar, pressed the ruling junta to loosen restrictions and were permitted to meet with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Parliamentary elections, though with troublesome restrictions, are now scheduled for the first time in 20 years, and the junta released a pro-democracy activist from prison. Not much progress, but enough to keep us at it.

Policy goals, of course, sometimes remain elusive despite efforts at engagement. Iran, while initially intrigued by the idea of shipping uranium abroad for enrichment under International Atomic Energy Agency supervision, has now descended into a sea of political invective in the wake of controversial election results and an emerging internal opposition. Nevertheless, the president is working to build a coalition to impose a stricter set of sanctions than those presently in place to dissuade Iran from pursuing its nuclear ambitions. Engagement with all the members of the Security Council, especially Russia and China, will be vital to achieving passage at the United Nations. As he did with Russia and China, the president will make full use of engagement to achieve that goal.

Obama has judiciously used engagement in pursuit of our foreign policy goals. The measure of his success in using this tool will be judged by the effectiveness of our foreign policy in the hardest cases, like Iran and North Korea.

Warren Christopher was secretary of State from 1993 to ’97.