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Obama's powerful presence

The president's popularity -- on view at the U.N. -- has helped reduce global tensions and deprived America's enemies of propaganda points.

September 25, 2009

Conservative critics of President Obama's foreign policy initiatives are having a tough week. On Thursday, Obama achieved a signature victory when the U.N. Security Council unanimously approved his resolution aimed at halting nuclear proliferation. His warm reception by the General Assembly -- some delegates were so awed by the American president that they couldn't resist snapping pictures during his Wednesday speech -- stood in sharp contrast to the welcome accorded George W. Bush, whose U.N. speeches were typically met with stony silence. Even the implacably hostile Russians suddenly seem amenable to U.S. desires.

"Fluff and stuff," groused Bush's former ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton, in reference to the nuclear weapons limits. "It's passing a resolution that doesn't have any impact on the real world that undercuts the credibility of the Security Council," he told the Wall Street Journal.

Bolton is correct that the council's action is more about style than substance. The nuclear resolution does little more than consolidate a variety of measures that had already been endorsed by the Security Council and other international bodies. What's more, Obama's high-flown words might be well received, but so far they haven't produced much action. The president got applause when he demanded reconciliation between the Israelis and Palestinians, for example, but leaders on both sides still refuse to entertain the serious compromises that might lead to progress. Signals from Russian President Dmitri Medvedev that Moscow might consider sanctions against Iran over its nuclear weapons program allow for optimism but do not ensure that Russia will follow through.

Yet what neither Bolton nor other neoconservative thinkers have ever understood is that words, resolutions and friendly dialogue have considerable power in themselves.

International tension fuels extremism, oppression, terrorism and war. As the world's sole superpower, the United States is in a unique position to exacerbate or reduce that kind of tension. Under Bush, eight years of unilateral actions, disrespect for international institutions, violations of international law and needless antagonism of countries such as Russia increased tension to nearly unbearable levels, served as a recruiting device for terrorists and produced gridlock at the U.N. that made addressing global problems all but impossible. It also strengthened hostile regimes in Iran, Sudan and Venezuela, among other countries, where leaders needed only to defy the United States to heighten their popularity. The result was a more dangerous world.

No, Obama hasn't produced world peace. But he has palpably reduced global tensions and deprived America's enemies of propaganda points. Isolationists, nationalists and neocons, who tend to do the opposite, should take note.

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