Mary Dejevsky: Obama's 21st-century world order

His instinct in making foreign policy reflects an ability to see the other's point of view

President Obama had no sooner secured his healthcare programme than implications were drawn for his foreign policy. The self-same doom-watchers who had predicted the failure of his young presidency as it stumbled on health, were transformed overnight into cheerleaders, projecting this legislative milestone on to his credibility abroad. Success, they affirmed, bred success. When the same week was crowned with the first US-Russia arms agreement for 20 years, their point was made.

Now it is surely true that Obama's triumph in an area where so many other Democratic presidents failed, enhances his authority more widely. However the new law works in practice – and the obstacles the insurance companies will raise to almost universal healthcare are not be underestimated – it gives him an early claim to a place in history beyond his election as America's first black President. It also clears one big preoccupation from his domestic agenda, freeing time and energy for other things. And those other things will include foreign policy.

But to expect a series of successes abroad – from progress in the stalled Middle East peace process to a resolution, on US terms, of the stand-off over currency values with China – is to ignore both the realities that drive foreign relations overall and the considerable foreign policy groundwork that Obama has already put in. Any rewards he eventually reaps will come from the many seeds already sown, far more than from any enhancement of his domestic authority through healthcare.

For there has been a pattern to be discerned in his foreign policy from the day he was inaugurated as Barack Hussein Obama, drew a line under the Bush presidency and extended a hand to those who would unclench their fists. And it is a pattern that, despite a variety of apparent setbacks, remains mostly intact 15 months later. Born of a recognition that the world as it evolved after the Second World War is already in the past, it is a coherent and pragmatic approach to the global power shifts that have already begun.

Probably there are few national leaders who do not see their own time in office as a watershed, or potential watershed, of some kind. George Bush certainly came to see his presidency in that way, embracing a new sense of destiny in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. So, undoubtedly, did Tony Blair. One of his more memorable musings on foreign policy came in his Labour Party conference speech shortly after 9/11, when he spoke with evident excitement of this being "a moment to seize" in the "fight" for freedom and democracy around the world. "The kaleidoscope has been shaken," he said. "The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us re-order this world around us."

In retrospect – and even for many at the time – it is doubtful that this was a moment to seize, at least not for the particular idealistic project Blair (and Bush) had in mind. They harboured a messianism that sought to impose on others what they judged to be in their best interests. What is more, they took for granted that the Western world was still the global leader and arbiter. There were echoes here of Madeleine Albright's astoundingly arrogant description of the US, when she was Secretary of State, as "the indispensable nation". "We stand tall," she said, "and we see further into the future."

It is 12 years since then, and almost a decade has elapsed since 9/11. But it is not just the passage of time that makes the difference. It is that Obama sees the world in different terms. That he was born 15 years later than either of his predecessors and outside the shadow of the last world war may have something to do with it, along with his international upbringing.

But his instinct in making foreign policy reflects an appreciation of how the world looks not just from Washington, but from elsewhere. Bill Clinton displayed unusual cultural sensitivity – he was feted in France, which is no easy trick for an American without a Jackie Kennedy in tow – but this derived more from his political genius than from an ability to stand in others' shoes.

From Iran and the Middle East to Russia to China and South America, Obama has shown an acute awareness of the domestic and regional constraints on those he is dealing with, along with an almost unerring facility for pressing the right buttons. Europe may not be in his sights, but he well knows that Europe presents no threat and can safely be left to decide its own level of engagement with the world.

In some places, Obama has been unlucky. Who knows if, with an Israeli prime minister other than Netanyahu or a more united and flexible Palestinian leadership, there might have been advances in the Middle East? In others, his overtures have had a perverse effect. In abolishing the "axis of evil" and appealing direct to Iranians, Obama helped precipitate the turmoil that followed Iran's elections. He had made demonising the US more difficult.

Something similar would apply elsewhere in the region; in North Korea, even in Russia. In hostile territory, Obama has split opinion, between those who still see him as cleverer, and so more dangerous, than his predecessors, and those who are tempted to engage. But none of this negates the evidence of a single mind at work, contemplating a world where the US will be one among several major players.

Choosing arms talks as the forum for "pressing the reset button" with Russia allowed Moscow to negotiate on familiar, and equal, territory. With a degree of trust established, wider cooperation may follow; we shall see when the agreement is signed in Prague this week. And there is a wariness with China, but one that sees Beijing's weakness as well as its strength. It is not cowardice, but pragmatism, that led Obama to delay publication of the currency report until after this month's nuclear summit. Why trigger conflict, if you have the power to fend it off?

In a year of new diplomatic directions, Obama has shaken the kaleidoscope for real, and the pieces are indeed in flux. But his patience is proven, and he will allow them to settle. If there is a moment to be seized, it will be months, even years, down the line. In the meantime, let no one be blind to the scale and world-changing nature of the US project that is evolving before us.