Barack Obama’s administration is starting to put itself about internationally. Having stayed away from the World Economic Forum in Davos, the US sent a high-powered delegation headed by Vice-President Joe Biden to the Munich security conference the weekend before last.
Naturally, there is a lot of talk about the change represented by the new administration. Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, says the US needs to use “smart power”.
This formula references the distinction drawn by the Democratic Party policy intellectual Joseph Nye between “hard power” – the economic and military capabilities of states – and “soft power” – the more diffuse cultural influence exercised by, for example, Hollywood. Smart power is supposed to be a synthesis of the two.
But the real problem that the US faces is that George Bush used up a lot of its hard and soft power. Moreover, the economic and financial crisis is draining away resources that might otherwise have helped to prop up America’s global position.
Given this situation what strikes one is, as George Friedman of the intelligence consultants Stratfor noted, “the continuity between the Bush and Obama administrations in foreign policy”. This continuity isn’t with the Bush gang when they sought, in the wake of 9/11 to use military might to spread US-style liberal capitalism throughout the Middle East.
It’s more with the chastened Bush administration of its final two years, after Donald Rumsfeld had been sacked as defence secretary and especially once the military and the intelligence community had effectively vetoed an attack on Iran.
This doesn’t mean there are no changes. Obama moved very quickly to order the closure of Guantanamo Bay. But he did that precisely because this was a hugely symbolic act, but one of little operational significance. And his government is still blocking the publication of information about the torture of Guantanamo inmates.
Speaking in Munich, Biden reaffirmed Obama’s policy of holding direct talks with Iran. But this is a shift that was recommended by the Iraq Study Group, headed by that arch-Republican insider James Baker, back in December 2006.
What we’re seeing is not the abandonment of the “war on terror”, but the “war on terror” under new management. So General David Petraeus, architect of the surge of US troops in Iraq, is now organising another surge, this time in Afghanistan.
Richard Holbrooke, one of a host of new presidential envoys, visited Pakistan last week to demand a greater military push against the Taliban. Pakistan’s president Zardari has admitted they are active in “huge parts” of the country. US airstrikes into Pakistan have continued under Obama.
The one area where Biden had been expected to indicate a real shift was in relations with Russia. He did say, “It is time to press the reset button and to revisit the many areas where we can and should be working together with Russia.”
But Biden did not, as anticipated, announce a review of the missile defence system – the introduction of which into central and eastern Europe has been denounced as a direct strategic threat by Russia.
Biden’s silence may have been, the New York Times speculates, “part of a bargaining strategy in the elaborate chess game being played between the former cold war enemies”.
In the lead-up to Munich, Russia announced it was going to build major military bases in Abkhazia. More significant still, the president of the central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan announced, presumably under pressure from Russia, that he would no longer allow the US to use his air base at Manas.
The Nato supply line to Afghanistan runs through an increasingly unstable Pakistan and is under attack from the Taliban in the Khyber Pass. The alternative routes through central Asia are effectively under Russian control.
Here, then, is a real change. Obama is facing a Russia whose leaders are exploiting what they describe as America’s decline. His real legacy from Bush may be a world where great power rivalries become much more visible.