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Domestic Politics Are Shaping Global Relations

President Barack Obama may be showing the top of his head in a respectful bow to the emperor of Japan. But the rest of the world seems intent on showing Obama the back of their hand.[IMGCAP(1)] Just this past week, China indicated that it would probably not be on board for U.N. sanctions against Iran. Russia made plain that there would be no successful resolution to nuclear talks before a December deadline. Japan is getting increasingly restive over a controversial military base on Okinawa. And Israel announced plans to expand controversial East Jerusalem settlements, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to the White House for what were described as good talks. Tough week.Some critics will use these events to suggest that Obama’s engagement approach to foreign policy isn’t working. But the more likely explanation is that the world is responding more to the president’s domestic political challenges than to his international agenda. There’s a connection between getting 60 votes in the Senate and getting five votes in the U.N. Security Council.For every president, international relations are influenced by home-front politics. When a president enters into a conflict with another country, whether diplomatic or military, political chips are pushed to the center of the table. If the bet pays off and the conflict is resolved with the U.S. emerging as a perceived victor, then it can be a smart bet. Indeed, history is rife with leaders precipitating international crises in part out of desire to increase political capital through a risky gambit.But the catch is that you can only credibly play that game if you have enough chips to place your bet in the first place. Presidents with low political capital are inevitably constrained in what they can do internationally. Foreign leaders know they can turn those constraints to their advantage.And right now, President Obama is low on chips. His political capital is almost entirely tied up in four gigantic bets: health care, Afghanistan, financial reform and stimulus. This is understood not just in the United States. Obama looks to the world like a guy trying to juggle four glass balls. If someone comes up and gives him a shove, it may not knock him over, but he sure doesn’t have any free hands with which to push back.So let’s say you are Netanyahu. You want to expand West Bank settlements because it is part of your ideological vision for the state of Israel, because it will satisfy important domestic constituencies and because it will strengthen your hand in any future negotiations with the Palestinians. But you know you can’t afford a true diplomatic rift with the United States. The question is: Can you expand settlements and get away with it? Given President Obama’s situation, it seems like a pretty safe bet that he cannot afford a fight with Israel right now. Not at a time when pro-Israel stalwarts like Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) are already iffy on health care. Not at a time when every House and Senate vote is desperately needed and every distraction is a potential deal-breaker.So Netanyahu makes the rational move. He stiff-arms the U.S. So far, it looks like his bet is going to pay off. Initial indications are that while the White House and State Department will issue some unhappy rhetoric, nothing remotely approaching a true diplomatic showdown will take place.This same calculus is being done in Beijing, Tokyo, Moscow, Tehran and the capitals of Europe. These leaders read the New York Times. They follow the polls. They understand politics. It doesn’t take Machiavelli or Sun Tzu to see that Obama needs to avoid an international incident that could derail his other priorities.So U.S. foreign policy is going to be a precarious business in the near term. The Obama team is going to absorb some indignities. That is the hand that it has been dealt (or perhaps the one it has chosen to play). But the good news is that this is all temporary. The Obama team can minimize the downside by making sure leaders around the world understand that while the U.S. may be preoccupied at the moment, this moment will soon pass. And we have long memories. Next year, when some of the issues currently dominating the debate are resolved one way or another, then there will be plenty of time for a settling of accounts with those who took advantage of these circumstances to score points on us.That is the sort of message a Chicago pol should feel very comfortable delivering. If he does, then the little game of kick-the-Americans that the world seems to be playing right now will be short-lived. And the second half of Obama’s first term will offer ample opportunities for advancing the president’s ambitious global policy agenda.Arik Ben-Zvi is a managing director at the Glover Park Group.

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