A New American Realism

President-elect Obama’s choice of a national security team reflects seriousness, pragmatism and bipartisanship. In introducing them, Obama laid out their fundamental task: to exercise American leadership and engage the international community in a world where American and global interests have become inseparable.

The selection of Hillary Clinton and Bob Gates to lead the Departments of State and Defense should leave no doubt that the United States will remain a key player on the international stage. “Retreat” is not a word that one would associate with either of them. Clinton may find that Gates will be the strongest advocate to invest in her Department and to make civilians, not the military, the face of American diplomacy.

The appointment of Susan Rice to the UN makes clear that Obama seeks to fix this institution, not trash it. He, Biden and Rice all underscored that there is no choice. In a world of global problems, we need effective global institutions. In her introductory remarks, Rice wasted no time making the case that preventing conflict, building peace, countering terrorism, protecting the planet and ending poverty are interconnected issues. Her challenge will be to work with the UN to secure partners to share the burden.

The presence of Holder and Napolitano as part of the national security team makes its own statement about human rights and the rule of law. America must commit to a rule-based international system to reestablish its credibility. The rule of law must again be turned into an American asset and seen as a fundamental American value.

General Jones perhaps takes on the toughest job: producing coherence from a complex world and a complex team. Obama underscored that he eschews “group think,” but he wants discipline. Jones was tested in pursuing coherence among NATO’s 26 members in his last post as Supreme Allied Commander Europe. Now his task will be to seek coherence in the President’s global agenda.

Perhaps we saw a foreshadowing at the press conference of Vice President-elect Biden’s role. Clearly he knows as much about national security as the rest of the team. He used his statement to reinforce Obama’s: that the U.S. cannot act alone, U.S. interests are tied to global interests, and leadership means eliciting cooperation, not going at it alone.

The new national security team’s press conference also told us something about the agenda: you can’t ignore two wars and the Middle East, and you can’t avoid the existential challenges posed by climate change, nuclear proliferation, terrorism and poverty. Obama, in effect, is putting forward a team intended to deal with all these issues.

The challenges they will all face are both substantive and managerial. In selecting strong leaders, presumably Obama intends for them to build strong teams. Those teams have to work with each other. They must work out how to share the burden internationally. This is a task of matrix management phenomenal in its complexity.

Obama’s demeanor made clear that he intends to be a Commander-in-Chief. He stressed that he will give Secretary Gates a new mission in Iraq. In guiding his team, he will take a 21st Century view toward national security: energy, power, economics, human rights, terrorism and poverty must be part of the agenda. If indeed Obama and his team assess policy through a prism of “sustainability,” that will be a welcome and necessary perspective on American security.

One has to take encouragement from a team that is both deep and broad. It brings expertise on defense, diplomacy, Congress, the rule of law, politics and the nature of a globalized world. The next step will be to align their gears. And there the role of President Obama will be key.