Domestic issues have long had an impact on external relations. Experienced diplomat Charles W. Freeman, in his excellent book on diplomacy, "Arts of Power: Statecraft and Diplomacy," observes that "in diplomacy, perceived power is real power." American power is not measured in military arms and financial strength alone. It is derived from the vibrancy of our culture, the strength of our civil society and the capacity of our political system to produce results. The passage of the health care reform bill has changed perceptions about the Obama presidency. Passing this domestic test gives the president the impetus he needs to address major challenges to the United States on the international stage.
President Obama was at the pinnacle of power and influence when he was inaugurated. He used his international reputation to launch a series of diplomatic initiatives: to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute; to take on Al-Qaida in Iraq and Afghanistan so that our troops could withdraw; to rally the world against efforts by Iran and North Korea to develop nuclear weapons; to reach out to the Muslim world; to stabilize and enhance relations with Russia and China, and to negotiate arms control and climate change agreements. Some progress was made on all these fronts, but efforts seemed to stall as the president became bogged down in the defining domestic struggle of his presidency. As the debate wore on and his popularity ratings descended, so did his influence with other governments.
Thus, it was more difficult to gain NATO support for more European troops in Afghanistan. Tensions grew with China over Taiwan, and the Chinese government became even less cooperative on Iran sanctions and economic and trade issues. A "crisis" developed with the Israeli government over an untimely announcement of new settlements in East Jerusalem. President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan hosted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Kabul in an obvious reaction to U.S. pressures to reform his government. European leaders Angela Merkel of Germany and Nicolas Sarkozy of France, reportedly envious of Obama's popularity in their own countries, let it be known that they were skeptical of the staying power of the new American administration.
Since the signing of the health care bill on March 23, the floodgates of international activity have opened again. Sarkozy and President Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel have visited Washington in obvious efforts to smooth over differences. President Hu Jintao of China has decided to attend a nuclear security summit in Washington in late April. An arms control agreement with Russia, long in the works, was reached, and a summit was held in Prague not only to celebrate the new agreement but also to send a warning to states flirting with developing a nuclear weapon. Obama also made a surprise visit to the troops in Afghanistan, in part to put more pressure on a recalcitrant Karzai.
Obviously, this flurry of international activity cannot all be attributed to passage of health reform. Still, the spirit and volume of action seems to reflect a new energy, renewed global respect for a president who succeeded in a major challenge, and enhanced confidence that the American political process can overcome harsh divisions and produce a result. Obama is a more confident president, and his foreign-policy team is back in the game.
We should be under no illusions; the deeply partisan debate over our health care system did nothing to enhance our image in countries that take government-sponsored health care for granted. Still, the outcome mattered to those abroad who may have wondered whether the American political system was broken beyond repair. Whatever views Americans hold on health care, objective observers will appreciate that Obama's victory strengthens his hand in confronting serious external threats. This matters a lot, because "perceived power is real power" on the international stage.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.