The Obama Administration Will Be Very Cautious on Foreign Policy

December 16, 2008

In a Spiegel interview, US foreign policy expert Strobe Talbott discusses the daunting foreign policy challenges facing Obama, the next president’s desire to turn Americans into global citizens and the prospects for reinvigorated trans-Atlantic relations.

Spiegel: Mr. Talbott, Barack Obama will be confronted with a world beset by problems when he takes office on Jan. 20. Which priorities should be at the top of his agenda?

Strobe Talbott: I know what will be uppermost on the agenda — the international financial crisis. Still, there is real danger in simply extending the motto of the Clinton presidency: “It’s the economy, stupid.” It would be understandable for the new government to make its slogan, “It’s the international economy, stupid,” but I would still consider that to be risky and probably a mistake.

Spiegel: Does a more urgent problem exist in these times than protecting prosperity and social security?

Talbott: This is a deep crisis and if it is not solved, globalization will turn sour on us all. But there are some other urgent issues that cannot be put on the back burner: climate change, the danger of nuclear proliferation, world poverty, global health protection and the prevention of international pandemics. These issues should not be de-prioritized because of the financial crisis.

Spiegel: And are you confident that Obama won’t lose his way in the thicket of wars and crises — including Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, India, Georgia and Israel?

Talbott: I think Obama gets this big time. There are strong indications that he has an acute understanding of these problems. Just think of his remarkable election night speech at Grant Park in Chicago. He basically said, “We have some tough problems, do not expect them to be handled quickly, not in a year and maybe not in four years.” He summed it up in three phrases: two wars, a planet in peril and an international financial crisis. I checked with people familiar with the way his mind works, and the order in which he put those was no accident.

Spiegel: How will Obama manage to take the country on an international journey that entails sacrifices for the American population? Effective climate protection, after all, requires smaller cars and less energy use.

Talbott: Obama is pretty good at reconciling the reconcilable. That does not mean that he can reconcile the irreconcilable, but he always finds ways to lower tensions and diminish polarization.

Read full interview »