Foreign policy: Can super Obama save the world?

THE question of how Barack Obama shapes US foreign policy is of acute relevance to the United Kingdom because the first rule of British politics – transcending the question of which parties hold power on either side of the Atlantic – is that where Washington leads, we follow.

If a Democrat had been elected eight years ago, he probably would not have taken the US into Iraq, in which case Britain would not be there either. On the other hand, that would have meant Saddam Hussein still ruling the roost in Baghdad, which would create its own set of issues. In other words, the past is history, and now we must look to the future.

I was Minister of State at the Foreign Office at the time of the last transition, when Bush took over from Clinton. It was the most awesome diplomatic exercise I have witnessed, or am likely to. Nothing else mattered to the FCO mandarins but to get "our man" – at that time Tony Blair – in there first.

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While the rest of the world observed proprieties and stood back while hanging chads in Florida were being disputed, the UK diplomatic machine was in overdrive, having decided all the huffing and puffing in Christendom was not going to overturn the result. They were right, and the tactic, in the short term at least, succeeded.

A similar desperate scramble will be going on to get Gordon Brown in there, fast and first. Britain has many friends in Washington, and I would put my money on Brown being at the head of the queue.

Americans love presidents who keep them out of foreign wars, which is one reason why Bill Clinton would have been a shoo-in eight years ago if he could have stood. Obama's instinct will be to keep America out of new wars, and that is good news for us, since it will also keep Britain out of them.

Dilemmas are already lining up for the president-elect. The Palestinian group Hamas yesterday said it was ready to talk with Obama, saying his election was "a big change" both politically and psychologically.

The group's leader, Khaled Meshal, insisted the US had "no option" but to end its boycott of Hamas, which has an electoral mandate and controls the Gaza Strip, if it wants to help broker peace in the Middle East. During his election campaign, Obama said he could not talk to Hamas until it renounced terrorism and hostility to Israel.

Questions also persist about the attitude Obama will take to Iran. He has come under criticism for saying he would talk to President Ahmadinejad, but it remains to be seen if he will honour this promise after State Department briefings on the country's nuclear capabilities.

Obama's immediate dilemmas will involve existing commitments, in Iraq and Afghanistan. There will be a huge domestic expectation that a president-elect who was always against the Iraq invasion will be poised to end US involvement in that country.

Fortunately for Obama, the tide is already flowing strongly in that direction, and the policy of transferring responsibility to the Iraqi government and army will continue. An agreement is due to be signed, limiting the US military presence to a further three years. However, timetables and reality do not always coincide. Obama is also Commander-in-Chief, and cannot allow the withdrawal of troops to endanger those who remain. So there is more likely to be steady progress than any dramatic gestures.

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Afghanistan is even more complicated. The "war on terror" may have been devalued as a phrase by George W Bush, but terrorism exists and is closely linked to the fortunes of the Taliban and their cohorts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. That is why Obama has focused so much on Afghanistan, vowing to increase rather than reduce the US military presence there, while undoubtedly looking to the rest of Nato to match that commitment. The most pressing decision is whether it's time to talk to the Taliban, to try to bring stability to the country.

It is at this interface between US foreign policy and domestic security that Obama will want to make a real difference. But it is a delicate balancing act. He must be seen to be working to end American wars abroad, which most Americans do not greatly care about. However, any foreign policy that appears to threaten domestic security will carry a high political cost.

The whole world wants a part of Obama, rightly believing he is more open to the global concerns than his predecessor. Africa has more claims than most, through his Kenyan pedigree. Brown would surely welcome an indication of increased US commitment to the drive against poverty in that continent, and this is an area where the two leaders could work well together. Closer to home, Obama needs to improve relations with Venezuela, on which the US is oil-dependent, and, having won Florida, possibly initiate a rapprochement with Cuba.

Obama comes to the job with a head start. He is seen, rather like Blair in 1997, as a harbinger of change. All over the world, people will be willing to give him a chance and look to him for new ideas and solutions. He can be a fantastic agent for reconciliation and progress, while at home he will be judged mainly on his success, or otherwise, in extracting Americans from two unpopular wars while still nailing the terrorist threat.

Russia looms large in securing global security

Russia's war with Georgia in August will affect US foreign policy for years to come; the dangers it highlighted were cited as a factor in Obama's choice of a seasoned foreign affairs man, Joe Biden, as his running mate.

Despite president Dmitry Medvedev last week threatening to deploy missiles to Russia's western enclave of Kaliningrad, Obama is expected to push the need for Russian-Western co-operation.

The Obama campaign argued the US and Europe still have essential goals for which they must have Russian help – pursuing arms control, reining in Iran's nuclear program, fighting terrorism, building trade – and that Bush failed in these areas because he overemphasised a personal relationship with Vladimir Putin instead of doing more detailed diplomacy on specific issues.

On Bush's plans for a missile shield based partly in eastern Europe, Obama has supported work on a system to protect the US and its allies from missile attacks, but says it must be "pragmatic and cost-effective" and cannot divert resources from other priorities until its technologies are proven.

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Obama also said he would seek reductions in all US and Russian nuclear weapons, and try to extend the monitoring and verification provisions of the START treaty.

The Russians "will wait and see what the next administration has to offer", said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.

More US election stories:

The economy: If he can't deliver we will all pay the price

The environment: Green giant step for mankind

The White House: Camelot's back but without the fairytale glitz

The Republicans: For Dubya, the only way is up

The Special Relationship: Brown after a little Obama stardust

History's view: Just like JFK? Let's hope he's a better man