Mary Dejevsky: Critics of Barack Obama's foreign policy need to get real

Why has there been for so long such a clamour for world leadership?

Do I detect just a tiny rivulet of disappointment with Barack Obama and his foreign policy? Even, in some quarters – such as the softer, fuzzier sections of US liberalism – a slowly swelling tide? I'm not talking about the words he has uttered, at least not the words of his set-piece speeches. His recent address to the Muslim world (no less) at Cairo University was a masterpiece of oratory, cultural sensitivity and political savvy. At this more rarefied end of the policy spectrum he is at his impressive best.

No, it is in his responses to unforeseen events where the doubts have started to seep in – Iran being the latest and most egregious example. Are the ideological and moral lines not quite clear? We appear to have a rigged result, if not actually a rigged election, and seven people – at the most recent count – killed marching for democracy, as a theocratic regime fights for its life against a surprise assault from modernism. Is there any doubt about whose side the Western world should be on?

Yet all Barack Obama could do was pronounce himself "deeply troubled" – and not by the situation as a whole, but "by the violence I've been seeing on television". When he elaborated, he hardly personified righteous indignation. "I think," he said, "that the democratic process, free speech, the ability for folks to peacefully dissent, all those are universal values and need to be respected."

This careful statement was of a piece with Obama's seemingly laid back presidential style, and it is starting to bring him flak. He is accused of following rather than leading, reacting rather than trying to make the weather, exposing his inexperience of international issues. Even as I type the words "Obama's foreign policy", the doubters' scorn rings double forte in my ears: what Obama foreign policy?

When two US journalists were sentenced to 12 years' hard labour for illegal entry into North Korea, Obama said he was "deeply concerned", and left it to others to say they were exploring every channel to secure the pair's release. When North Korea conducted its latest nuclear test, Obama spoke of making the international non-proliferation regime more "robust".

When Israel chose the hardliner, Benjamin Netanyahu, to head the government, over Tsipi Livni, the moderate foreign minister in the previous government, the US President did not write off the peace process. And when that same prime minister set out his requirements last Sunday, Obama welcomed Netanyahu's acceptance of a two-state solution, while ignoring the potential deal-breakers. What price a foreign policy that absorbs the information without rushing to make a judgement and take a stand?

Well, the rest of the world had better get used to it, because this may be the shape of US foreign policy for a good while to come. And what a refreshing change it could be, too. Do you remember when Obama made his first trip to Europe as President – when he was feted at the G20 London summit and European leaders competed for his favours? Perhaps you also remember the slightest hint of disappointment when he declined to take command, and how this was put down to his inexperience and his incomplete foreign policy team?

A more perceptive response might have been to ask why, on both sides of the Atlantic, there has for so long been such a clamour for world leadership, and why, if there has to be such a thing, everyone expects it to reside in Washington. Both as candidate and President, Obama has repeated that he does not see it as the role of the United States to dictate to others how they run their countries or live their lives. What he has said so far about Iran fits comfortably within this frame. There is no point in the US giving succour to aggrieved opposition voters, if it has neither the will nor the power take its encouragement to its logical end.

What happened in the former Soviet republic of Georgia last summer is an object lesson in how not to encourage false hopes, whether in an opposition or a national leadership. After two terms of a Harvard MBA who turned out to be a starry-eyed idealist in disguise, the US has elected a hard-headed and unapologetic realist – one prepared to gauge US interests and calibrate his response.

This does not mean that Obama will not espouse moral or democratic values. It does mean, though, that he recognises the limits of American power and will address each foreign policy case on its merits. In parts of the world, including "new" Europe, which relied on the advocacy of George Bush, this will not be a very welcome message. Elsewhere, it should come as an immense relief.