For the first 100 days of Barack Obama's presidency, coverage of his foreign policy has focused primarily on his dramatic diplomatic gestures and the overwhelmingly positive response he has received from foreign publics and leaders. It feels good to see an American leader being treated as a hero instead of pariah. On a more substantive level, restoring our prestige has real benefits -- cooperation is easier when having a close relationship with the President of the United States is a political boon and not a liability (Just ask Gordon Brown and Tony Blair). But diplomacy is only a means to an end . What is much more significant are some of the early changes the president has made in how he prioritizes U.S. interests and the strategies used to achieve them. Below, the Prospect considers four of the major changes to U.S. foreign policy made by President Obama in his first 100 days.
Putting terrorism in its proper place.
The president has restructured our priorities so that terrorism is treated as one of a number of significant challenges but no longer dominates all other policy objectives. This does not mean abandoning counterterrorism as a priority. Obama made that clear when he explained the goal of his new Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy: "To disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future." But it is a rebuke of the Bush-era concept of a "war on terror," which viewed all extremist groups and state sponsors of terrorism as a cohesive threat -- a policy that resulted in our invasion of Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 or al-Qaeda.
It has also meant a reframing of our relationship with the Muslim world. As the president explained during a speech to the Turkish Parliament, "America's relationship with the Muslim community, the Muslim world, cannot, and will not, just be based upon opposition to terrorism."
This approach has carried over to the president's decision to close Guantanamo Bay and put an end to torture. These practices are morally reprehensible, of questionable efficacy, and act as a recruiting tool for terrorists. As Obama explained, "America's moral example must be the bedrock and the beacon of our global leadership."
Prioritizing the elimination of nuclear weapons.
During the Bush era, there was bipartisan agreement that the use of nuclear weapons by terrorists was at the top of the list of national security concerns. During the 2004 presidential debates, Sen. John Kerry and President George W. Bush agreed on this point. The problem with the Bush approach was that it focused exclusively on the perpetrators of such an attack while ignoring the weapons themselves.
Obama has overturned this policy and embraced the global arms control regime that played such a crucial role in limiting the spread of nuclear weapons during the Cold War. During a seminal speech in Prague on April 5, he committed to the goal of a nuclear-free world.
After years of deteriorating relations with Russia, Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev agreed to restart negotiations and come to an agreement by the end of this year on a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which would dramatically reduce U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles. Considering that the two nations possess a combined 95 percent of the world's nuclear weapons, this was a critical step both in reducing nuclear weapons and also making clear that the world's foremost nuclear powers are committed to a nuclear-free world.
The president has also signaled his commitment to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) by making Vice President Joe Biden the point man on achieving Senate ratification. This crucial agreement to ban testing failed ratification in 1999, thus undermining America's position to credibly lead international non-proliferation initiatives.
Rebalancing the national security budget.
For years the allocation of spending in the national security budget has been characterized by badly misplaced priorities. It overemphasized military spending while ignoring the other tools of diplomacy and development. It included billions in funds for ineffective and unnecessary Cold War weapons systems, while falling short on basic needs like armor and troop strength for the wars we are fighting today. The result has been a national security infrastructure unprepared to deal with the problems of the 21st century.
The Obama administration's budget adds 10 percent to the combined State Department and foreign assistance budget. Moreover, by hiring the highly respected Jack Lew as deputy secretary of State for Management -- a position that went unfilled in the Bush administration -- the administration has sent a clear signal that the State Department will be a real player when it comes to fighting for resources.
The Defense budget also represents a dramatic strategic shift away from big expensive toys to the programs and personnel that are needed for current and future conflicts. This has involved cutting: the F22 Raptor, which was designed to fight the next generation of Soviet fighters; the DDG1000 surface destroyer -- a program so expensive and unwieldy even the Navy decided it did not want it; and the Future Combat Systems, which included the Army's plans for replacement vehicles but did not take into account the experiences and needs from Iraq and Afghanistan. In place, Gates committed to expanding the size of the ground forces and investing in weapons systems designed for irregular operations such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Connecting the dots on regional strategies.
The Bush administration too often subscribed to simplistic theories that looked for regional silver bullets. The most egregious example was the claim that the invasion of Iraq would spread democracy and lead to a permanent Middle East peace. Obama has taken a different approach choosing to simultaneously address multiple regional problems and recognizing that important linkages exist.
In the Middle East, the president moved on a number of fronts at once. He set a firm deadline for withdrawal from Iraq -- a decision that sent a clear signal to the region that the U.S. was not there to create a permanent military presence. He has pursued aggressive public outreach towards Iran in an attempt to overcome years of bad blood and pave the way towards diplomatic negotiations. But he has also worked to gain greater support from Russia -- the country most capable of exerting real pressure on Iran -- on the nuclear question. He has engaged Syria sending two senior officials to Damascus after years of diplomatic isolation. And, from day one he has put negotiating an Arab-Israeli peace at the top of his agenda.
In Latin America, the president has recognized that our anachronistic Cuba policy serves as a barrier between the United States and the entire region. He has begun the critical process of improving relations by removing barriers preventing Cuban Americans from traveling to the island or sending remittances and by also striking a new tone, which received a positive response from Raul Castro. He followed this up by attending the Summit of the Americas where he received a warm welcome, in stark contrast to Bush's isolation four years ago.
The administration has also prioritized the fight with the drug cartels in Mexico and released new initiatives meant to stop the flow of money and weapons south and strengthen Mexico's internal security and capability to deal with the cartels. Perhaps the greatest signal of how seriously Obama is taking this problem is the fact that the president as well as three cabinet members (Hillary Clinton, Eric Holder and Janet Napolitano) have all visited within the first 100 days.
Overall, it is too early to ascribe to the president a fully formed foreign policy philosophy. But 100 days into his administration, it is clear that these changes have already gone a long way towards redefining American foreign policy and they will likely continue to be central elements of the president's policies for years to come.
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