18 September 2009
Robin Niblett

Dr Robin Niblett CMG

Director, Chatham House


Preisdent Barack Obama is under growing pressure at home on his signature health care programme, in the eye of a fierce debate over claims of racist attacks on his Presidency and his poll ratings are falling sharply.

But he chose this moment to announce one of the most radical and fundamental shifts in American foreign and security policy of his new administration.

In taking the decision not to deploy a missile defence system in Eastern Europe, he has made it clear he will not be deflected from the central premise of his foreign policy - that the United States can only achieve its most important foreign policy goals through diplomatic engagement rather than through the unilateral exercise of its still considerable global power.

Yes, many Polish and Czech leaders have been left frustrated and even embarrassed by the American 'volte-face', but there had been plenty of warnings over recent months, not least in the earlier commentary of many of the individuals now occupying senior positions in the Obama administration. And the Poles will still receive key parts of their promised US military upgrades. More importantly, by moving forward with a system focused on Iran's short and medium-range missiles, the Obama administration is recommitting itself in an explicit way to the long-term defence of Europe, a key message to send at a time when European capitals are concerned by the US strategic shift away from Europe towards Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Middle East and its relations with rising powers such as China and India. The Obama missile defence system could tie the United States more closely into European security, in contrast to the Bush strategy of using two of its loyal 'New European' allies as an outpost for protecting the continental United States.

But the real significance of this decision lies in its impact on the future of US relations with Russia. The Obama administration has taken a conscious decision to try to engage Russia in dealing with some of the most pressing challenges to both countries' security - controlling nuclear proliferation, combating the spread of Islamist extremism in and beyond Afghanistan and dealing with Iran's nuclear programme. Obama's meeting with Russian President Medvedev at the UN General Assembly meeting in New York next week is a key marker in this new relationship. The Russians had made clear that there would be little chance of "resetting" the US-Russian relationship so long as the United States did not withdraw its missile defence plans for Poland and the Czech Republic.

With this decision, President Obama has changed the strategic landscape for US-Russian relations. He will now try to secure Russia's support to bring greater pressure on Iran within the UN Security Council. It remains to be seen, however, whether the Russian government will see this step as warranting a reciprocal concession on their part, especially towards Iran. The Russian leadership perceives the world in a 'zero-sum' context, where a weakening of America represents a strengthening of Russia. President Obama will soon learn whether his strategy of engagement will bear fruit or whether, like Iran itself in recent months, America's other opponents are simply not willing to bow to the new policy of engagement any more than they were to previous policies of confrontation.

This article appeared in The Daily Telegraph on 19 September 2009.

Dr Robin Niblett discusses President Obama's foreign policy on The Today Programme. Listen >>