President Obama’s new brand of foreign policy is based, in part, on the belief that abandoning arrogance and brashness and adopting a more humble and conciliatory posture will help us forge alliances and end up making us safer. The recent developments in North Korea show the limits of that strategy. In spite of warnings, North Korea conducted a missile test. In response, the Obama administration promised “consequences,” immediately called a meeting with the U.N. Security Council and –surprise!– China and Russia stood in the way of any sort of resolution that had teeth. The Security Council ended up agreeing on a watered down statement. Yet that modest statement was still enough to elicit a vow from a defiant North Korea to kick out U.N. inspectors, withdraw from the six party talks, and restart the processing of plutonium. Now, the Obama administration is proposing tougher financial sanctions against 11 North Korean companies, but it will have to get China and Russia to agree to the sanctions.
This is just one area in which Obama’s belief that he could do a lot better than George W. Bush is being put to the test. It’s obviously too early to cast judgment, but at the minimum, the North Korea issue demonstrates how much more complex our foreign policy challenges are than they seem on the campaign trail.