Shadow Government

An Obama-Cameron partnership?

One disappointing lesson for the Obama administration from its first year in office is that stratospheric personal popularity in Europe does not necessarily translate into specific policy achievements. Whether the issue was major increases in NATO contributions of combat forces to Afghanistan, resettling Guantanamo detainees, the Copenhagen climate change summit, or even Copenhagen's "talk to the hand" rejection of the Chicago Olympics bid, in Europe Obama's poll ratings were high but achievements were low.

Part of the administration's challenge is that while public opinion can indirectly help shape a policy environment, it is political leaders who directly make policy choices. And in this regard, President Obama has yet to find a reliable European counterpart. Nicolas Sarkozy has at times been outright critical of him, Angela Merkel has been cool, and Silvio Berlusconi is, well, Berlusconi. Then there is Gordon Brown, whose strained relationship with Obama never really recovered from its initial awkwardness.

So as President Obama ends his first year in office and looks ahead to the coming year, an opportunity he should seize in 2010 is to forge a strong partnership with David Cameron and a conservative government in the United Kingdom. Of course this depends on a Tory victory in the upcoming elections (almost certainly on May 6), which while quite likely is by no means certain. But should the Conservatives take power in the UK, Obama will have a valuable chance to press the proverbial "re-set button" with America's most important ally by reaching out to its new leader.

Doing so would revivify the moribund U.S.-U.K. Special Relationship, and more broadly would also help anchor the otherwise adrift U.S.-Europe relationship. Britain's value to the United States comes not merely from the shared history, language, and values of the Anglo-American tradition, but also from the U.K.'s status as a European power that can help bridge the Atlantic, influence other European nations, and take and translate the pulse of the Continent for sometimes befuddled American ears. 

The specifics of a Tory foreign policy remain somewhat of an enigma, as do Cameron's own convictions. But in Cameron, Obama would find someone similar to himself: a young, eloquent, personable, ambitious leader eager (in Obama's case, too eager) to break decisively with his unpopular predecessor. And who faces vexing economic challenges of staggering deficits and high unemployment, along with a persistent terrorist threat at home and abroad.

Yes they come from different parties, but then if President Bush and Prime Minister Blair could forge a close relationship across Republican-Labour lines, then Obama and Cameron can forge a partnership across Democrat-Tory lines. Given the profound national security challenges facing both nations in the coming year -- whether Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran's nuclear weapons program, the general al Qaeda threat, or many others -- both leaders will need reliable friends.

Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Holding out for the National Security Strategy

I am looking forward to reading President Obama's National Security Strategy (NSS), which should be released early this year. The NSS is the authoritative account of the president's grand strategy -- how he sees the challenges and opportunities confronting the United States in the world today and what he intends to do about it.

It is important in ways that my FP colleague, Steve Walt, seems not to understand. The NSS is an invaluable window into the thinking of the president; even if early drafts are developed by lower-ranking staff, the president and senior-most presidential aides will scrub it closely, more closely than any other governmental white paper. Because it is not a speech, it can cover terrain and develop the "theory of the case" that no one would inflict upon a listening audience. Precisely because it is a public document, it must authentically reflect the administration's world-view; it is not a fortune cookie prediction of what the administration will do in any particular setting, but it is an authoritative statement of the principles that guide the president.

The NSS is one of the most important communications tools the president has and, perhaps surprisingly, one of the most important audiences for it is the rest of government. The NSS will tell the vast governmental establishment responsible for implementing the president's vision just exactly what the president's vision is. 

The NSS is also a good window into the evolution in thinking of the administration. By the time an NSS is released, the team usually has learned a thing or two that it did not fully appreciate when it was campaigning. President Clinton's campaign rhetoric was contravened by real-world events, especially the Black Hawk down episode in Somalia and the unraveling of the situation in Haiti and Bosnia. President Bush's first NSS reflected a similar evolution, with 9/11 thoroughly refocusing the national security lens and putting in disrepute the Bush campaign's prediction of a "strategic pause" and even more the campaign's dismissal of "nation building."

The NSS is a gauge of the intellectual maturing of an administration. While the early years of both the Clinton and Bush terms were afflicted with an ABB/ABC (anything but Bush/anything but Clinton) mentality that pretended their predecessors had been unmitigated idiots, there was comparatively little of that poison spoiling the National Security Strategies they wrote. President Obama has suffered from an acute case of ABB, at least rhetorically, so it will be interesting to see if his NSS has the same intellectual spoil, or whether he finds himself tacking back to the national security center.

Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images