What World Leaders Must Do to Help Obama

Stanislaw Ciosek was once a member of the Polish communist regime that tried to suppress Lech Walesa's Solidarity movement in the 1980s. It imposed martial law and arrested many of Solidarity's leaders, but later negotiated the "roundtable" accords that led to the partly free elections in 1989. That ballot produced a landslide victory for Solidarity that signaled the end of one-party rule and the collapse of communism in Poland, triggering ripple effects throughout the region.

A few years later I met with Ciosek—then serving as the Polish ambassador in Moscow—and asked him what had prompted the Communist Party to take the risk of negotiating with Solidarity. With the economy imploding, mounting social unrest and no possibility that Mikhail Gorbachev would send Soviet troops to help with a new crackdown, he described the previous decade as a period "when it was obvious that our plane had lost its undercarriage, the engines were not working—but you had to make some sort of landing." The roundtable constituted the party's last hope of controlling the landing. Despite the fact that the negotiated settlement allowed the communists to retain a majority of uncontested parliamentary seats for themselves and their allies, the party still lost power. But the landing was soft enough to allow for a peaceful transfer of power without any violent retribution against the former rulers.

Ciosek's metaphor comes to mind because of the breathtaking real-life emergency landing of the U.S. Airways flight 1549 in the Hudson River three days before Barack Obama's inauguration. Pilot Chesley ("Sully") Sullenberger, who made sure everyone aboard was safely off the plane before getting out himself, shrugged off the accolades for him and the crew afterward. "We were simply doing the jobs we were trained to do," he said. But as other pilots have pointed out, it was a remarkable achievement to perform such a maneuver with both engines out without losing any of the 155 people on board. Sullenberger has been hailed as the "hero of the Hudson" for good reason: he demonstrated leadership and skill when it was most needed.

It's the kind of leadership a lot of Americans—and many others around the world—feel has been sorely missing of late. Now that Barack Obama has taken office, it would be nice to believe that the new president can demonstrate a similar level of leadership and skill in piloting a much bigger plane. But no matter how well he performs, Obama won't be able to handle all the current crises alone. In effect, he'll need both American and allied copilots who can fly their own missions. And like Ciosek's metaphorical and Sullenberger's real planes, some of these flights will also end up making high-risk, emergency landings.

In dealing with the economic crisis, Obama and every other major political leader face a dual task. The first part concerns the mechanics of stimulus packages: determining their size and scope, and bargaining with opponents to produce deals that enjoy the broadest possible political support. The second part is equally vital: instilling a sense of confidence that these measures will actually produce results—if not a speedy recovery, at least allowing for a soft landing, adequate repairs and then preparations for a new takeoff. The current crisis has demonstrated once again how much economic performance is tied to human psychology: when investors and others expect an upturn, this increases the chances that it will happen. But the downside scenario can be similarly self-fulfilling.

In dealing with key foreign-policy challenges, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have already tapped two co-pilots to go on separate missions. Former Senate majority leader George Mitchell got the always dicey Middle East portfolio, and he was promptly dispatched on his first foray into the region. Obama explained that this first trip would be largely a listening tour, but he also declared that Mitchell's longer-term task will be to achieve "progress, not just photo ops." The former senator from Maine earned international recognition by playing a key role in forging a peace deal in Northern Ireland, but his current assignment is far more daunting. While Hamas leaders have talked about their "high hopes" for dealing with the new administration, Mideast special envoys have a long record of frustrating, aborted missions.

Although Iraq is hardly at peace yet, the real focus of the Obama team and its allies who deploy forces there will be the rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. Obama has tapped Richard Holbrooke, who brokered the Dayton peace agreement ending the war in Bosnia, to be the special envoy for this task. Many Europeans complained that the Bush administration mistakenly made Iraq its top priority, but now Holbrooke is likely to challenge them to allocate more troops and resources to Afghanistan. But as a recent Financial Times poll of EU voters showed, most Europeans are strongly opposed to upping their involvement.

Already, the Taliban has expanded its territorial reach and attendant violence by about a third and the government of President Hamid Karzai is struggling to keep things from spinning completely out of control. Afghan experts are warning that, without fast progress as the U.S. deploys more troops, Holbrooke could find himself piloting a plane going down fast. To avert such an outcome, much more than fresh troops are needed. The international community needs to pour in more aid to deal with a food and water crisis and encourage longer-term economic development, monitor internal political tensions as the country prepares for presidential elections later this year, and somehow get Pakistan to crack down on the extremists there. "There is no answer in Afghanistan that does not confront the Al Qaeda and Taliban bases along the border, and there will be no lasting peace unless we expand spheres of opportunity for the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan," Obama declared as he announced Holbrooke's appointment.

If there's a silver lining in the Afghanistan situation, it's Russia's declared willingness to help NATO with alternate supply routes through its territories and neighboring states as a way of reducing dependence on Pakistan. True, the signals were decidedly mixed last week. After receiving a promise of $2 billion in Russian loans, Kyrgyzstan announced its intention to close the U.S. airbase on its soil. Nonetheless, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev pledged "full-fledged" cooperation with Washington in fighting terrorism in the region. While the Kremlin clearly dislikes any U.S. military presence nearby, it doesn't want the Taliban back in power, since that could destabilize Tajikistan and fuel Islamic militancy. It should be in the interests of both sides to keep that from happening.

The other big challenge facing the Obama team and its allies is what to do about Iran. This, of course, is tied closely to the future of the missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, the subject of so much angry rhetoric from the Kremlin. If the object is to deal with a possible nuclear threat from Iran and find a way for Russia and NATO to cooperate, the debate could be reframed to focus on one key question: what is Iran's real nuclear capability, both in terms of producing weapons and delivering them?

If the missile shield is examined in that light rather than viewed as a demonstration of Poland's mistrust of Russia and vice-versa, there might be a chance to defuse the tensions surrounding this project. This is where the Obama team could use a Polish pilot—a political leader willing to try to calm the heated emotions swirling around the entire gamut of issues fueling Russian-Polish tensions. Like the intrepid Polish pilots in the Battle of Britain, any volunteer for this assignment would have to know that he could easily crash and burn.

But there's reason to believe that the Putin-Medvedev team also sees new incentives to tone down some of its rhetoric and cooperate with the West on far more than just Afghanistan. The sharp decline in oil prices and the global slowdown has exposed the weaknesses of the Russian economy—in particular, the squandering of much of the oil revenue of the recent past and the failure to establish the basis for a more diversified economy. That has led to the first small signs of social discontent, although quickly suppressed. And the more fundamental question remains unanswered: if many Russians feel that there has been a direct trade-off between dwindling political freedoms and economic prosperity, how will they feel in the long term if the economic picture doesn't improve?

The latest political killings in Moscow, the murder of human-rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Barburova, the young journalist who was with him, underscore the fact that Russia's political "stability" hasn't produced a society based on any conventional sense of law and order. A more cooperative foreign policy won't resolve such issues, but any smart Russian leader might feel more confident facing them if he isn't taking a lot of flak from elsewhere at the same time.

If the Obama administration now has a chance to make real progress with the Russians, it may already have to engage in a bit of damage control when it comes to China. Chinese leaders are still smarting from what they perceived to be snubs or putdowns in the new president's Inaugural Address. Although Obama never mentioned China by name, his reference to how earlier generations "faced down fascism and communism" proved particularly galling. The Chinese TV translation of the speech omitted the word "communism" altogether, prompting questions about censorship. This only compounded the impact of another controversial line delivered by Obama: "To those who cling to power through corruption and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."

From the Obama team's perspective, the line about defeating fascism and communism was meant to invoke memories of the collapse of the Soviet empire, and there's no indication that they had China in mind. Similarly, the "wrong side of history" statement looked aimed at dictatorships in the Middle East. But the fact that the Chinese took both statements as offensive to them underscored the need to factor in how messages can hit unintended targets. Coupled with the flap over Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's statement during his confirmation hearings that China is manipulating its currency, all of this got the Obama team off to a rocky start in its dealings with Beijing.

The fact is that Washington and Beijing need to be working in tandem to address the current economic crisis. China needs a strong American economy to keep up its export industries; the U.S. needs Chinese financing of its ballooning debt. The current crisis could trigger new cooperative efforts to bolster each other, or turn into a blame game and then a pattern of behavior that could rapidly work to the detriment of both countries. The harsh remarks in Davos by Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao about the American "unsustainable model of development" and the "blind pursuit of profit" may have been on target, but they certainly weren't conciliatory. To the Chinese and others with a critical eye, Obama's declaration that "we are ready to lead once more" could easily be read as a rejection of genuine international partnerships. That wasn't Obama's intention and other parts of his speech clearly struck a very different note, but there was plenty of room for misunderstandings and the revival of old grievances.

All of which suggests that Obama may already need to make some adjustments in his early flight plan. Even the most skillful pilot recognizes that flying is always dangerous, particularly when atmospheric conditions are as volatile as they are right now. Leaders everywhere could learn a lesson or two from Sully Sullenberger.