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Cool head for the hottest issues

by Chris Patten

LONDON — Reading Barack Obama’s “Dreams From My Father,” the U.S. president’s beautifully written reflections on his early life and identity, most people are struck by his cool and intellectual approach. This is not to say that he is unemotional. Obama can rage and weep. But he rarely seems to act on the basis of raw sentiment or instinctive prejudice.

Sooner or later, every issue receives the full attention of his forensic curiosity. Challenged in Hillary Clinton’s famous Democratic primary campaign television advertisement, Obama, it turns out, is exactly the sort of president that most of us would want to have in the post for that 3 a.m. phone call about an international crisis. He would not be afraid to act, but he would be prepared to think first.

I do not think, therefore, that Obama will be too vexed by some of the criticism he faces at the end of his first year in office, though he will undoubtedly grimace at the defeat of the Democratic candidate in the special election in Massachusetts to fill Ted Kennedy’s old Senate seat. Obama was praised extravagantly a year ago; 12 months on, the criticism is over the top, too.

Obama inherited a terrible legacy — recession, financial meltdown, Iraq, Afghanistan. He has not solved these problems. But it is difficult to see any really bad mistakes, except perhaps allowing himself to be pushed around by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and giving China the impression that he was prepared for a bilateral relationship entirely on China’s terms.

That seems to be changing now. Obama may have come to understand that when you are the leader of the world’s only superpower, you need to be feared just a little if you are to be respected.

The left in America criticizes Obama for not turning the economy around already. The right angrily denounces him as a crypto-communist because he wants every American to have health care. With a dispassionate eye on the long game, what is the president really thinking?

One issue that Obama is certain to have in his sights is a problem that shadowed the world for years. When I was growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, world peace was based on the nuclear standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union. The main strategic assessment on both sides of the Berlin Wall was that if either side made a wrong move, all of us might end up consumed in the flames of a nuclear holocaust. This was called, in the geostrategic jargon of the day, “mutually assured destruction,” or MAD. The acronym was entirely appropriate.

We have forgotten those days. Yet there are still 23,000 nuclear warheads on our planet, with the explosive power of 150,000 Hiroshima bombs. Terrorist groups would undoubtedly like to get their hands on one.

In all, there are eight nuclear-weapons states — the U.S., Russia, Britain, France, China, Israel, India and Pakistan. North Korea may also have a few bombs. Iran is believed by many to be trying to develop one. Other states, which have their own civil nuclear capacity, have the potential to develop a weapon. The number of countries in this category is bound to increase as the number of nuclear power reactors doubles over the next 20 years.

The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) has contained the number of nuclear states. A conference is to be held in May to renew and review it. Obama clearly recognizes that the NPT needs to be strengthened to prevent countries from turning their civil nuclear-power capacity into weapons.

Obama also knows that if the existing nuclear states want others to accept tougher restrictions, they will have to cut back their nuclear arsenals. This is principally an issue for the U.S. and Russia, which possess 95 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. In addition, it would help if the U.S. could take a strong lead by ratifying the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

The nuclear issue is one of the biggest items on the Obama agenda. How it is handled will help to define his presidency. Even before the talking gets serious in May, there will be the question of Iran to sort out. Iran says it seeks no more than its own ability to produce nuclear power. Disbelief grows with every revelation of secret Iranian facilities and plans, and with every refusal by Iran to negotiate safeguards that would allow for civil use while preventing weaponization.

The U.S., European Union and Russia have tried to engage Iran on this issue, so far without success. China seems likely to block effective sanctions on Iran because of its close energy relationship with the country. How China eventually handles this will profoundly affect its standing in the U.S. and Europe.

These are going to be some of the major questions for Obama over the next year and more. If he gets them right, he can forget about his short-term critics. He is smart enough to know this.

Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs, is chancellor of the University of Oxford. © 2010 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)