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SPIEGEL Interview with Strobe Talbott: 'The Obama Administration Will Be Very Cautious'

In a SPIEGEL interview, US foreign policy expert Strobe Talbott discusses the daunting foreign policy challenges facing Obama, the next president's desire to turn Americans into global citizens and the prospects for reinvigorated trans-Atlantic relations.

Then Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama in Berlin on July 24: "America doesn't like being unpopular, but we will accept it if necessary. Still, we much prefer being liked."
AP

Then Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama in Berlin on July 24: "America doesn't like being unpopular, but we will accept it if necessary. Still, we much prefer being liked."

SPIEGEL: Mr. Talbott, Barack Obama will be confronted with a world beset by problems when he takes office on Jan. 20. Which priorities should be at the top of his agenda?

Strobe Talbott: I know what will be uppermost on the agenda -- the international financial crisis. Still, there is real danger in simply extending the motto of the Clinton presidency: "It's the economy, stupid." It would be understandable for the new government to make its slogan, "It's the international economy, stupid," but I would still consider that to be risky and probably a mistake.

SPIEGEL: Does a more urgent problem exist in these times than protecting prosperity and social security?

Talbott: This is a deep crisis and if it is not solved, globalization will turn sour on us all. But there are some other urgent issues that cannot be put on the back burner: climate change, the danger of nuclear proliferation, world poverty, global health protection and the prevention of international pandemics. These issues should not be de-prioritized because of the financial crisis.

SPIEGEL: And are you confident that Obama won't lose his way in the thicket of wars and crises -- including Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, India, Georgia and Israel?

Talbott: I think Obama gets this big time. There are strong indications that he has an acute understanding of these problems. Just think of his remarkable election night speech at Grant Park in Chicago. He basically said, "We have some tough problems, do not expect them to be handled quickly, not in a year and maybe not in four years." He summed it up in three phrases: two wars, a planet in peril and an international financial crisis. I checked with people familiar with the way his mind works, and the order in which he put those was no accident.

SPIEGEL: How will Obama manage to take the country on an international journey that entails sacrifices for the American population? Effective climate protection, after all, requires smaller cars and less energy use.

Talbott: Obama is pretty good at reconciling the reconcilable. That does not mean that he can reconcile the irreconcilable, but he always finds ways to lower tensions and diminish polarization.

SPIEGEL: When it comes to culture, doesn't America -- with its large domestic market and fixation on itself -- seem like one of the least globalized countries in the Western world?

Talbott: There is no question that the population of the United States takes its sovereignty very seriously. We don't have a tradition of transnationalism like you do in Europe. I know many people on your continent who identify as European just as easily as they identify as being German, British or French. But this European culture is only 60 years old.

SPIEGEL: Will Obama attempt to shift from an American identity to a global one?

Talbott: He has already begun to do so. In his speech in Berlin's Tiergarten, he called himself a citizen of the world. This was sentiment for which Socrates was put to death. In the United States, nobody gets put to death for saying that, but as a self-characterization, it certainly has a radioactive touch.

SPIEGEL: He is not the first American to describe himself as citizen of the world.

Talbott: John F. Kennedy did it, and so did Ronald Reagan, but they both waited until they got to the White House. I think it is further evidence that Obama was out in front when he said the United States needs to think of itself as a communal citizen of the world. He will not, however, come at everyone with the grim message that we all have to change our way of life, that we need to take the metro, for instance, or buy small cars.

SPIEGEL: Because the average American can only handle positive messages?

Talbott: You can make fun of us all you want. But our people are right to ask: What are the benefits for us and for our country?

SPIEGEL: And what is the answer?

Talbott: America will get stronger if it both invents and makes use of innovative technology. America does not simply want to be green. America wants to make money off being green. It wants being green to reduce our dependency on Arab oil and to strengthen national security. Unlike the view of the Bush administration, in Obama's understanding there is no tension between energy, economic and environmental policy.

SPIEGEL: Won't the focus on global governance that you recommend for the US be undercut by the constant cost-benefit calculations of domestic policy?

Talbott: For a President Obama, a lot depends on combining domestic and foreign policies. An active climate policy would promote and renew America's leadership role, and the respect we would gain globally would reflect positively on us. America doesn't like being unpopular, but we will accept that if necessary. Still, we much prefer being liked.

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