Should Obama Be the World's Therapist?

It's amazing what a few kind words can do. In his comments since taking office, and as he strode through Europe last week, President Barack Obama has made a point of explicitly and very publicly praising other nations. Greece's illustrious history "inspired" the United States, and the two NATO members fought on behalf of these shared values "shoulder to shoulder." Modern Turkey had an "extraordinary founder" in Atatürk, and Turkey's culture has "beauty," its history "richness" and its democracy "strength." As he met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in one of a handful of bilateral talks in London, Obama expressed his own gratitude for the meeting, and talked four times in a brief statement of the nations' "mutual interests," saying the Russian president's leadership has already "been critical" in helping U.S.-Russian relations progress.

Obama's warm-and-fuzzy message of respect marked a sharp difference from George W. Bush's with-us-or-against-us rhetoric, with its implicit suggestion that America is OK but, well, you're not. Obama is counting on this feel-good approach to smooth out relationships with countries, like Russia, that have strong nationalist feelings and perhaps an overly rich sense of national identity compared with their relative power in the world.

So far, Obama's brand of geotherapy seems to be working. Exhibit A: Russia, which in the decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union has suffered from something of an inferiority complex, viewing itself as a great power and complaining bitterly when the United States has failed to treat it as such. James Goldgeier, a Russia expert at George Washington University, says the bilateral summit in London, particularly with its public emphasis on a new arms-control agreement, reaffirmed Russia's status as a nuclear superpower and almost made it seem as though the two countries were on a par with one another, even though clearly Russia is a shadow of the power it once was. Obama's announced trip to Moscow in July, along with the series of lower-level bilateral meetings on nuclear proliferation, can help promote this feeling of self-respect—even if nothing comes of the talks—potentially even laying the groundwork for cooperation from Russia on other issues, such as Iran's nuclear program. Since the London summit, Russia's "habitual U.S.-bashing" has suddenly become "politically incorrect," according to one report, and Medvedev now hails Obama as his "new comrade," saying he "can listen" and was "totally different" from his predecessor.

Geotherapy can help in other ways, too. For years, a rule of parity applied in U.S. and NATO foreign-policy circles: if you did something with Ankara, you had to do the same with Athens. So by meeting with the Greek prime minister at the NATO summit, and talking up Greece, Obama could "smooth any hurt feelings in Athens" over the fact that he included Turkey on his first trip to Europe, says Damon Wilson, a former Bush administration official. Otherwise, the Greeks might feel "insecure about their ties to the new administration." Showing respect for Greek civilization might also be helpful down the line in overcoming Athens's concerns about Macedonia's entry into NATO as a result of its claim that the nation's name is an affront to the Macedonia region of northern Greece—the birthplace of Alexander the Great. The Greek prime minister walked away from his meeting with Obama "absolutely satisfied."

Obama's comments in Ankara provided a similar function. Relations with the United States cooled during the Bush administration after Turkey vehemently opposed the Iraq War and refused to allow the United States access to its Incirlik military base as a staging ground for moving into Iraq. For its part, the United States essentially ignored the potentially powerful role this Muslim democracy could play in the region and only reluctantly (and only of late) agreed to help Ankara in its fight against the PKK terrorist group in northern Iraq. But by recognizing that Turkey's "greatness" lies in its ability to "be at the center of things," Obama showed his respect for what Turkey has accomplished and explicitly acknowledged the country's vital geopolitical vantage point. More broadly, Obama's ability to reach out to the Muslim world by acknowledging his own Muslim heritage showed an empathy that was the "most important component of his winning-friends-and-influencing-people strategy," says Bulent Aliriza, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Indeed, Obama's Turkey speech was hailed throughout the Muslim world.

The question, of course, is whether geotherapy can be a sustainable basis for a foreign policy. Stephen Sestanovich, a Russia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations who coined the term several years ago, says: "If we've got an American president that can make people feel good about themselves without giving too much away, then that's a terrific asset." But it only goes so far, he notes, and will eventually run up against the hard realities of geopolitics—different countries have different interests. Moreover, nations need at the very least to be open to this kind of diplomatic stroking. It is far too early, and it would be highly disingenuous, to exalt North Korea's Dear Leader or to try and break through to Burma's junta with soothing words. Similarly, Iran's political leadership has barely budged despite Obama's March rhetoric about the "greatness of the Iranian people and civilization." In the months to come, Obama will have to prove that he's more than just a geotherapist.