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Obama Promises New Focus on Diplomacy

President-elect Barack Obama has promised new foreign policy leadership when he takes office in January. Mr. Obama has said he wants to conduct foreign policy by relying more on diplomacy, and use military power only as a last resort. VOA's Cindy Saine takes a look at some of the major foreign policy challenges Mr. Obama will face and how he plans to approach them.

During his victory speech on Election Day in Chicago, President-elect Obama promised "a new dawn of American leadership" in the world. "To those who would tear this world down, we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security, we support you,” said Mr. Obama. “And to all those who have wondered if America's beacon still burns as bright, tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope."

Mr. Obama has promised to keep the United States safe and strong, but to rely more on diplomacy than military force. During the campaign, he said he would be willing to sit down and talk to the leaders of nations hostile to the United States such as Iran - without preconditions.

Yet, at a news conference Friday, Mr. Obama responded cautiously to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's letter congratulating him on his election victory. Mr. Obama said he would carefully review the letter and respond appropriately.

Zbigniew Brzezinski - who served as National Security Adviser under President Jimmy Carter and now advises Mr. Obama - says talks are more likely to produce results in cases such as Iran and its nuclear ambitions.

"It seems to me that serious discussions are a better policy than increasing hostility, threats, all of which eventually can lead to some sort of a collision,” said Mr. Brzezinski, now with the Center for Strategic International Studies. He added, “And a collision, an additional war, in that part of the world, in addition to what is going in Afghanistan and Pakistan and in Iraq, would be a catastrophe for the region, and a catastrophe for the United States."

On Afghanistan, Mr. Obama says the conflict cannot be resolved without addressing the issue of cross-border attacks from Pakistan. Yet the Pakistani government has been unable to stop them.

Robert Hathaway of the Woodrow Wilson Center says Pakistan will be the single biggest foreign policy challenge Obama will face. "Pakistan is almost on the verge of disintegration. It is a major nation; it's the sixth largest country in the world by population. It is a nuclear weapon state. It is extremely unstable right now both politically and economically, in fact, it is almost bankrupt," said Hathaway.

Barack Obama comes to the presidency with an unusual background. With a father from Kenya, a mother from Kansas, he spent some of his formative childhood years living in the predominantly Muslim country of Indonesia.

"All this will give him an unusual perspective," said Robert Hathaway. "I think Obama, because of his own personal experiences – remember he is first of all a minority, therefore I think that gives him a certain sensitivity that members of a majority don't necessarily have."

This may have contributed to the warm welcome Mr. Obama received when he traveled abroad in July during the campaign - and the glow of enthusiasm around the world that greeted his election last week. But the new president will have to get to work on real foreign policy challenges when he is inaugurated in January.