Obama, the (Foreign Policy) Realist
Did President Obama’s recent trip to Europe really prove he is too nice to lead effectively?
April 10, 2009
It is amazing to see just how surefooted Barack Obama is in articulating his message to the most diverse audiences — from down-to-earth corn farmers in Iowa to generally cynical globetrotting reporters, from European college students to the Turkish Parliament in Ankara.
In most of these audiences' minds, the U.S. president does not excel by telling them a lot of pleasantries.
No, they are spellbound because, instead of hearing a politician speak, they believe, for a long, long moment, that it is their smartest, all-knowing relative who has come to visit them in their distant village and lays out the world's challenges to them, including what needs doing by themselves.
True, Obama's style has frustrated a great many professional observers in his own camp.
In the run-up to the London summit, for example, New York Times reporters — writing under the headline of "Obama Will Face a Defiant World on Foreign Visit: Emboldened by Slump, Allies and Enemies Question the U.S." — speculated aloud on their newspaper's front page that Obama was no longer able to "dictate" the U.S. agenda to the allies and had to engage in "diplomatic efforts."
And one of the nation's former top diplomats, Nicholas Burns, advised Europeans in the International Herald Tribune to get in line — lest they find “the dramatically shifting balance of power will direct America increasingly… to Beijing, Delhi, Tokyo and Brasilia." Yet again other commentators in the Washington Post worry that Mr. Obama is "almost apologetic about past American primacy."
What is truly amazing about all this, though, is not anything about Mr. Obama or his message. For all the talk about him as an idealist and a man given to piling up the rhetoric, he evidently is a great realist.
He realizes, for example, that actions by his predecessor have consequences in real life — in terms of a diminished standing of the United States. But he also realizes full well that, even if Mr. Bush and his administration had not embraced unilateralism so fully, we live in the 21st century — a world that differs significantly from, say, the 1950s.
To threaten Europeans that America may withdraw its "fraternal love" and shift it to the rest of the world is not just terribly old hat, but also ignores profound world realities. Europeans have believed for decades that we live in a multi-polar world.
They cannot believe that a top U.S. diplomat would suggest with any degree of earnestness that the United States would not act on the shifting balance of power dynamically if Europe acted in a more compliant fashion.
After all, for a stable world to take further shape, all major nations and regional entities have to do just that — optimize the relationships with every major player on the world stage. Europe certainly does — and would expect America to do no less.
Leaving these highly transparent — and fake — siren songs aside, chastising Mr. Obama for not dictating to the allies is an even more astounding charge, considering that it comes from reporters (and not somebody like former Vice President Cheney).
Mr. Obama is also a great realist when it comes to his refrain that his country by itself cannot achieve too much on the world stage — and depends on a lot of cooperation from other partners around the globe.
That message, to be sure, is no news to any of his foreign audiences — and primarily seems crafted for home consumption and the education of his domestic audience. In that sense, he is trying to correct the record of the previous Bush Administration in two critical ways.
First, he is disabusing his fellow Americans of the notion that the United States can — or should — go it alone. The world is a complicated place. Despite all its military power, the United States cannot really dictate very much.
And second, Mr. Obama is actually continuing where George W. Bush sought to distinguish himself as a presidential candidate in his debates with Al Gore in 2000 when he committed himself to a humble foreign policy.
Instead of pointing to a weakness of Mr. Obama's, the uncomfortable stirrings in U.S. newspapers and among the nation's commentariat underscore something quite different. For the longest time, U.S. op-ed writers, think tankers and policymakers dedicated to foreign affairs have basked in the glow of the imperial presidency.
They saw the awesome power of the U.S. president on the global stage — and almost physically felt that his currency radiated onto themselves personally in terms of making them more powerful than their counterparts in other countries.
Under Mr. Bush, this warm place under the sun imposed a heavy price on many think tankers and other opinion makers in the U.S. camp. They believed that, if they criticized the incumbent U.S. president, they would undermine their own standing at conferences on the international stage.
This perverted sense of a reflective — rather than genuine — self-identity led to some very curious distortions, for example among liberal internationalists who all of a sudden embraced Guantanamo, if for no other reason than to be considered part of the White House's circle of insiders, treacherous as that proved to be.
Compared to all these distortion artists, who blindly followed some very ill-advised notions of idealism (if not absolutism), Mr. Obama offers a refreshingly different picture. By embracing global realities, rather than cascades of wishful thinking, he has positioned himself as the ultimate realist.
For all the domestic criticism in some camps for not having brought home more bacon, Mr. Obama can be proud for, in effect, having become a world educator. For all the appearances of conciliation, he has also shown the steadfast qualities of being a great — and very credible — exhortatory.
The messages he is sending both to his home audience as well as the audiences abroad, upon closer examination, are much less comfortable than they appear on the surface. To Americans, he truthfully communicates the limits of their own power (and an end to an era of self-overestimation).
And to foreign audiences, his message is equally cogent: "Look," he says, "we definitely have our limits — but the world has real problems we cannot simply wish away. Everybody needs to do their share. Stop deluding yourself that the U.S. government is some kind of miracle worker. We're all in this together."
That twin message transports a lot of adult supervision to a world that, at times, has become dangerously infantile. But the young American president has proven convincingly to his foreign audiences that he is an old sage.
All they hope for is that American audiences will do the same — and not simply lean back to expect some kind of miracle out of a rather miraculous man.
For all the talk about Obama as an idealist and a man given to piling up the rhetoric, he evidently is a great realist.
For a stable world to take further shape, all major nations and regional entities have to optimize relationships with every major player on the world stage.
To Americans, he truthfully communicates the limits of their own power (and an end to an era of self-overestimation).
For the longest time, U.S. op-ed writers, think tankers and policymakers dedicated to foreign affairs have basked in the glow of the imperial presidency.