This is a marathon foreign policy week for US President Barack Obama.  The next six days will leave a bold imprint on how American foreign policy is perceived in the world, indeed, on what Obama can achieve during his term.


Obama jetted into London yesterday evening.  Today he will breakfast with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and then join his G-20 colleagues to call upon Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace.  Wednesday’s whirlwind almost renders Thursday’s G-20 Summit anti-climactic.

After the G-20 gathering, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will rush back to their respective countries to host Obama in bilateral meetings sandwiched between the G-20 and the NATO Summits.

NATO Summit Saturday in Strasbourg and Kehl.  European Union Summit Sunday in Prague.  Obama winds up his foreign foray with a visit to Turkey on Monday.

The observation that leaps from this schedule is that the television cameras, choreographed dinners, motorcades and ritual protests that have corroded the substance of G-8 Summits are now eating away at every international forum.  Expect more grandstanding than discussion.

For better or worse, this is the environment of Obama’s first international steps.  The President  must rise above the glitz and myriad details to rivet in on seven main objectives.

  1. Obama must parry unwarranted attacks on the United States—not because they offend America, but because they deflect serious work on global challenges.  For example, it has become fashionable in some places to assail the “Anglo-Saxon business model” for purportedly dragging the world economy into the mire.  At home, Obama has been fairly blunt and bluntly fair with criticism of American business.  In the international arena, he must be equally blunt—arrogance, greed and stupidity undermine prosperity whether served with beer, champagne or vodka.  The G-20 leaders—representing 90% of world GDP—must stop the blame game to pull the world economy from the mud.
  2. There will be strong diplomatic temptation in London, Strasbourg and Prague to accommodate everyone’s ideas.  However, some ideas are stupid and Obama must reject them.  In particular, calls for a world currency and talk of a new European security structure that will eclipse NATO must be dumped into the trash heap.
  3. The focus at the G-20 and EU Summits will be the global economy and Obama must skillfully blend leadership and collaboration to end the week with a sense that there is consensus at least on the broad strokes of how to proceed.  In particular, Obama must end the bickering between Washington—spending money it does not have—and Brussels—writing stultifying bureaucratic regulations.  Surely our peripatetic world leaders can find middle ground.
  4. Directly related to global prosperity are closer relations with China and India.  As Medvedev writes in yesterday’s Washington Post, “The end of the Cold War and subsequent globalization fundamentally altered the geopolitical context of our relations and vastly increased the importance of leadership”—but differently than the Kremlin imagines.  With large, dynamic and diversified economies, China and India are now world leaders.  Obama must extend the hand of cooperation to Hu and Singh, underscoring the importance of international norms and recognizing that security challenges remain, which, to the extent possible, we should confront together.
  5. At the 60th Anniversary NATO Summit, Obama must recognize the most successful military alliance in history for maintaining peace and building democracy.  The Strasbourg-Kehl summit venue is itself a celebration of the lasting peace that Europeans have forged.  The merriment, however, must be bounded.  We are losing—losing—the war—war—in Afghanistan.  Obama has rightly eschewed polemics about each country’s contribution; however, he must press for a common NATO approach to Afghanistan.  The outcome of the war will be important in itself, but our approach to it will determine whether NATO can evolve into a 21st Century security organization, which, in turn, will determine its approach to further enlargement.
  6. The North Atlantic community’s security challenges for the foreseeable future will come from the south and east, underscoring the importance of our ally, Turkey.  Obama must lay a new cornerstone for the strategic partnership between the US and Turkey, beginning with concrete commitments to eradicate PKK terrorism and to cooperate in securing Turkey’s legitimate interests as the US withdraws from Iraq.  He must express respect for Turkey’s elected government and the democratic choices of the Turkish people.  However, Obama must firmly impress upon Turkish leaders that they must continue to develop liberal democracy, foster healthy relationships with the US and other western partners and pursue constructive foreign policies toward the Black Sea, Central Asia, Iran and the Middle East.
  7. All that said, most eyes will be on the Obama-Medvedev meeting, which some compare to the June 4, 1961 meeting between US President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.  Now, as then, a young, idealistic and untested American president enters unstructured discussions with the head of a country given to bluster, inchoate demands and vitriol.  Obama must give Medvedev a firm handshake and demand—demand—the same of him.  If he manages that, whatever the Russian response, he will have been successful.

Georgia is a good illustration.  On March 25, Obama said, “My administration is seeking a reset of the relationship with Russia … consistent with the need to send a clear signal throughout Europe that we are going to continue to abide by the central belief that countries who seek and aspire to join NATO are able to join NATO.”

Moreover, the entire world—minus Russia and Nicaragua—recognizes Georgia’s borders, including the Russian occupied territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Obama must tell Medvedev to quit Georgian territory and stop fussing over Georgia’s inevitable progress toward NATO.  Medvedev will reject both points, but if Obama maintains his firmness and his offers of cooperation over the coming months, Moscow will take note.  Lest anyone believe that such a demand from Obama would be too forceful for a first meeting, note that Medvedev opened his March 31 Washington Post article reiterating Moscow’s demands, including ending “efforts to push NATO’s borders eastward.”  Obama must articulate his positions with greater vigor and confidence.

Obama should use his many meetings this week to explain to America’s allies that backbone in the American president is requisite to better relations with Russia.

This is a tall order, but the right time to begin filling it is at the outset of the Obama Administration.

David J. Smith is Director, Georgian Security Analysis Center, Tbilisi, and Senior Fellow, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Washington.  This column originally appeared in 24 Saati (24 Hours), Tiblisi’s major newspaper.