While Malaysia won’t be a key player at the summit, the visit will represent a significant shift in relations with the United States and help position Malaysia more securely on Washington’s radar.
The event, to be attended by leaders from more than 40 countries, is part of Obama’s ambitious goal of creating a new system to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons and nuclear material, particularly highly-enriched uranium.
There are growing fears that unless there are tighter international controls on fissionable material, it is only a matter of time before a nuclear device falls into the hands of terrorists.
The immediate objective, however, will be to forge an international consensus on an effective sanctions regime against Iran which continues to enrich uranium, an essential ingredient for nuclear weapons, in defiance of the international community.
Apart from Russia and China, key players on the nuclear file, the rest of the summiteers look like a who’s who of American friends and allies.
There is a good chance that a broad consensus will indeed emerge, especially since both China and Russia have grown increasingly weary of Iran’s intransigence.
Obama also needs the support of moderate Islamic nations to avoid any suggestion that this is but another American anti-Islamic venture. And that is where countries like Malaysia and Indonesia come in.
For Malaysia, however, the nuclear summit will serve simply as a backdrop to a more profound development that is under way – a major realignment of our relations with the United States that was presaged by the appointment of Datuk Seri Dr Jamaluddin Jarjis as ambassador to the US last year.
Najib’s meeting with Obama on Tuesday, as well as his meetings with other American leaders, is expected to formalise this shift and usher in a new era of closer bilateral cooperation.
Najib is emerging as one of the most pro-American prime ministers we have had in a very long time though not in a slavish way.
He seems to have concluded that neither the confrontational style of the Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad era nor the benign neglect of the Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi years serves Malaysia’s broader national interests.
This has led to a gradual realignment of relations with the US including support for some key American policy goals.
This became evident late last year when the government quickly removed Ambassador Datuk Mohd Arshad Hussain as permanent representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency after a contentious vote against an American-inspired resolution sanctioning Iran.
Although Arshad had dutifully followed his instructions (mistakenly sent from Wisma Putra as it turned out), he had to be sacrificed to mollify American displeasure.
Malaysia has also moved quickly to enact the Strategic Trade Bill 2010.
The Americans have long complained that Malaysia has unwittingly become a transshipment hub for dual use and other contraband nuclear material.
The Bill gives the government the power to act against those involved in the design, development and production of weapons of mass destruction.
It is no coincidence that the Bill was passed just days before Najib left for the US. It was also the reason why Attorney-General Tan Sri Abdul Gani Patail was dispatched to Washington for consultations recently.
Malaysia is expected to be more responsive to American appeals to support the rebuilding process in Afghanistan as well.
The Americans want us to help train the Afghan police and army in addition to the training of civil servants. Again, having more Muslim nations involved in Afghanistan is good; whether it will make any real difference on the ground is debatable.
Malaysia has also moved to endorse that other key Obama initiative, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a vehicle for Asia-Pacific-wide economic integration under American leadership.
Najib for his part will be looking for greater American support for his New Economic Model which is heavily dependent on increased trade and foreign investment to succeed.
America has always been crucial to our economic well being; keeping the relationship on an even keel is now more important than ever.
To many, including the business community, the realignment of relations with the US is sensible, beneficial and overdue.
Such a momentous shift, however, will invariably impinge on other areas of our foreign policy.
The TPP, for example, will undoubtedly cast a shadow on such long-cherished goals like East Asian integration and the Asean + 3 process. It might even mark the end of Malaysia’s quest for a uniquely East Asian grouping.
Support for other US foreign policy initiatives could lead to a weakening of commitment to NAM and OIC while relations with Cuba, Venezuela and Iran, Washington’s bad boys, could languish.
It is, of course, left to be seen how generations brought up on Dr Mahathir’s anti-western rhetoric and policies, and steeped in the culture of non-alignment and South-South cooperation, will adapt to such a shift.
Najib, however, seems to believe it is good for the country and is obviously confident that closer relations with the US would not undermine other key relationships. Certainly, if anyone can do it, he can.
He is at his best on the international stage – articulate and diplomatic but pragmatic and shrewd as well. And clearly willing to change when change is needed.
Diplomatically Speaking, The Star