Numerous signals have come out of Washington to indicate the emerging foreign policy priorities of the new administration. Quite deliberately, Mr Barack Obama has moved away from his predecessor's agenda and has begun to show how he intends to conduct business with foreign countries. He obviously does not begin with a clean slate, no more than any of his predecessors. The huge preoccupations of the wars he has inherited must claim precedence: that in Iraq winding down, that in Afghanistan becoming more fierce. Nor have abiding problems like those of the Middle East, among numerous others that flow through Washington, become any less intractable. What is to be seen at this stage in the initial flurry of appointments and visits is a conscious re-ordering of method and style, a distancing from the ways that had alienated so many. Thus the closure of the notorious detention facility at Guantanamo has been announced, as promised during the election campaign, and the US State Department has made cautious gestures towards estranged countries, and even towards others that earlier seemed utterly beyond the pale. A less divisive, more inclusive way of dealing with long-standing issues and problems appears to be on the cards. The initial two foreign tours undertaken by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirm a new stamp on US policy. The first of these took her to Asia, not the customary Europe. Not too much need be read into this shuffling of established order, except to register that Asia has become a much more substantial partner for Washington than it used to be. In Asia, Mrs Clinton went to Japan and South Korea, with which relations have always been close, so their being on the list broke little fresh ground. Not so, however, with Indonesia, which was also on the itinerary, and whose inclusion reflects its recent political and economic successes. Even more, it shows the interest of the new president in a country with which he has a personal association: even in the rarefied world of diplomacy, personal enthusiasms of leaders count for a good deal. In Indonesia's favour, too, is its moderate, tolerant practice of Islam, which can be a model for others. Mrs Clinton also went to Beijing where she had cordial meetings with the Chinese leadership. This was in marked contrast to what had happened on the last couple of occasions when there was a change of administration in the United States of America. Earlier, the new people came in with many complaints and resentments against China, and were all set to try to redress what they believed was a distorted balance in favour of that country, and it took some months for things to settle down. Not so this time; the secretary of state has tried from the start to create a sense of partnership in US dealings with this dominant Asian country, projecting the impression that these two need each other to deal with major global issues like the current economic crisis. Not long after her Asian trip, Mrs Clinton was in the Middle East and Europe. Here, too, evidence of change was deliberately conveyed. She took aim at Arab-Israel relations, a prime diplomatic priority for the new administration, with former Senator Mitchell who is Special Envoy to the region on her team. Few details of what was discussed between her and her interlocutors were made available: this is a touchy and sensitive area, so such caution was not surprising. Nevertheless, US determination to be engaged in Middle Eastern issues and push for a long-term solution was well received among Arab partners, though further activity will have to await the formation of a new government in Israel following the recent election which once again produced no clear winners. The Middle Eastern trip also witnessed a couple of noteworthy gestures towards countries with which USA's relations have for long been unfriendly. Two senior State Department officials were sent to Damascus for discussions with Syrian counterparts which seem to have gone well and indicate future possibilities of regular high level contact. The secretary also proposed a major conference on Afghanistan where all neighbouring states, including Iran, would be invited. Tehran has responded positively. These are small but welcome beginnings and one must wait to see if they lead to something bigger. The visit also showed that a significant change has already taken place is in the atmospherics of US-Russia ties. These had become notably frosty in the last days of Mr Bush, so much so that to some observers they looked like a virtual renewal of the Cold War, each side seemingly intent on undercutting the other, especially in regions adjoining Russia like the Caucasus and Central Asia. That seems to have changed, to judge from the cordial tone of Mrs Clinton's meeting in Geneva with her Russian counterpart. The two were full of bonhomie and seemed determined to put disagreeable matters behind them, which is a development that will be welcomed by regional countries that have been squeezed between these big powers. While the Secretary of State Clinton was putting down these and other new markers, President Barack Obama made some observations that will reverberate strongly in our own region. He was characteristically forthright in acknowledging that the United States of America was not winning the war in Afghanistan. The US presence is to be enhanced by the deployment of another 17,000 military personnel though this is far from the final answer to the problem, as senior US military commanders have indicated. Washington is groping for a way forward, to the extent that officials in Washington have suggested that not all of the Taliban are to be seen as irreconcilable opponents, and the possibility of coming to an arrangement with some of them is not excluded. Where this change of tack could lead is difficult to say but it opens up some tricky options. Nearly two decades ago, when the Taliban were yet to show their true colours, something similar had been contemplated, only to be shelved fairly rapidly as the reality of their programme and purposes became clearer. There is not much to suggest that they have changed for the better since then. Indeed, the deal between Islamabad and Talibanised groups in Swat has attracted much critical comment, and any arrangement with similar elements in Afghanistan would be no less problematical. To add to it, there are reports that Pakistan's army chief following his recent visit to Washington exhorted his president to put the country's political house in order so as to face the many looming challenges ahead, the Taliban prominent among them. If these reports are correct, they would indicate that Pakistan's democracy itself is under pressure even while it is being urged to play a bigger part in support of the USA in Afghanistan. Thus there are incalculable possibilities in the present policy churning in Washington and at this stage we can only wait to see what emerges. The writer is India's former foreign secretary