Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Obama Ideology and World Affairs, Part Three: Just Like Bush but Nicer and Multilateralist?

By Barry Rubin

Theme Four Democracy promotion!

The idea of supporting democracy as a major U.S. policy priority is back with the Obama administration, albeit somewhat further down the list. In her speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, Hillary Clinton said:

“We want to support and encourage democratic governments that protect the rights and deliver results for their people. And we intend to stand up for human rights everywhere.”

How is this different from their predecessor? And how does this square with the silence, until grudgingly goaded into saying something, over the upheavals in Iran?

Clinton stated the United States wanted to, “Promote universal values through the power of our example and the empowerment of people.” But what are “universal values?” I think this phrase is a step forward for the administration but are these values “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” or are they culturally and religiously conditioned, as Obama implied in his Cairo speech? That’s one on which the administration will have to make up its mind some day.

She explained:

“Liberty, democracy, justice and opportunity underlie our priorities. Some accuse us of using these ideals to justify actions that contradict their very meaning. Others say we are too often condescending and imperialistic, seeking only to expand our power at the expense of others. And yes, these perceptions have fed anti-Americanism, but they do not reflect who we are.”

Of course, this was a high-priority policy of the Bush administration and one often derided by the Obama supporters. Are we to believe the idea was right and was just implementing it wrongly? How is Obama democracy and human rights’ promotion going to be different? And what happens if this runs up—as it inevitably does—against political interests.

It clearly seems that there is something so American about this approach that it is not so easily jettisoned by any administration, and something so relevant to the world scene that U.S. foreign policy requires to say it. But the question remains how to do it, or is this just in for show? The problems include how efforts for democracy can provoke anarchy or radical rule, the weakness of democratic forces in many places, the way this issue is used to provoke anti-Americanism when presented (whatever the good intentions in Washington) as imperialistic interference, and the resentment of friendly regimes at their perception that the United States is subverting them. There are no easy ways around these paradoxes.

Theme Five: Power

How, aside from having a lot of partners, is the United States going to project its power on all these issues? One would expect that the instrument of military force would not be played up big in Clinton’s speech, what is amazing is that it almost isn’t mentioned at all.

Here is Clinton’s entire reference to this topic:

“And to these foes and would-be foes, let me say our focus on diplomacy and development is not an alternative to our national security arsenal. Our willingness to talk is not a sign of weakness to be exploited. We will not hesitate to defend our friends, our interests, and above all, our people vigorously and when necessary with the world’s strongest military. This is not an option we seek nor is it a threat; it is a promise to all Americans.”

In the overall context of the speech, this point is made so weakly that it is likely to have the opposite effect. Even from the most cynical standpoint, one would think someone would have said: Since everyone thinks we are reluctant to use force—either foreign enemies or domestic critics—we need at least three or four tough paragraphs to defend ourselves even if the accusation is true.

Everything in the speech could be construed as buck-passing despite Harry Truman's famous definition of the presidency as the place where the buck stops. Indeed, if this speech and administration policy had a single theme it would be: We are not unilateralist.

Clinton speaks of a “different global architecture–one in which states have clear incentives to cooperate and live up to their responsibilities, as well as strong disincentives to sit on the sidelines or sow discord and division.”

This sounds very rational and logical yet also divorced from reality. For example, what are the disincentives to European states not to take a tough stand on Iran? Is the United States really going to give Russia a "strong disincentive" not to "sit on the sidelones?" No.

Instead, we get the idea of “smart power” (a theme which has been discussed among Democrats for thirty years--I remember participating in such discussions in the 1980s with people like Gary Hart, Sandy Berger, and Madeleine Albright--and still does not have a clear meaning) which includes such ideas as:

--“To update and create vehicles for cooperation with our partners,” partnership again.

--“Principled engagement with those who disagree with us;” meeting with radical, terrorist-supporting states. The word “principled” signals that the United States won’t give them whatever they want. Still, not very toughly expressed.

--“Development as a core pillar of American power,” the United States is committed to helping countries advance economically, a basic policy since the 1950s so what’s new?

--“Integrate civilian and military action in conflict areas,” understandable but further waters down the military side.

--“We will leverage key sources of American power, including our economic strength and the power of our example.” There's an implication here of economic sanctions but also that power means the United States sets a good example. This is “power politics” of a decidedly low-intensity kind.

--Rebuilding alliances with Europe, updating Nato and other multinational groups: “From the UN to the World Bank, from the IMF to the G-8 and the G-20, from the OAS and the Summit of the Americas to ASEAN and APEC – all of these and other institutions have a role to play, but their continued vitality and relevance depend on their legitimacy and representativeness, and the ability of their members to act swiftly and responsibly when problems arise.”

Nowadays, such groups aren’t always big on legitimacy and representativeness (the UN Human Rights Council is dominated by countries like Libya and Iran) or for acting swiftly (lots of dead people in Rwanda to testify to that, if they were alive of course).

Nor does she forget “major and emerging global powers– China, India, Russia and Brazil, as well as Turkey, Indonesia, and South Africa–to be full partners in tackling the global agenda.” This is what I remember being once called the Nixon Doctrine.

But there are problems. China and Russia are opposed to sanctions on Iran. Turkey is now run by a regime with an Islamist orientation and cannot be relied upon.

Consider even the three token countries--Brazil, Indonesia, and South Africa--thrown in as representing Latin America, (non-Communist) Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa respectively.

Brazil: At present has a left-wing populist government which is not warmly friendly to the United States and serious economic difficulties. Also, its inclusion leaves out all Spanish-speaking South American states, which won't please them. And is Clinton setting up Brazil as America's alternative candidate to a radical, anti-American Venezuelan regime? No.

Indonesia: While its unique history makes Indonesia a relative center of moderate Islam, it is plagued by economic problems, violence, and instability. It has no influence outside its own borders and sometimes the government doesn't seem to have much influence inside them either.

South Africa: An inspiring story but not a regional leader, and again with worrisome domestic developments.

--And, Clinton adds, as in Obama’s Cairo speech, the administration will be “communicating directly with people from the bottom up.” The Cairo speech, though, is a complex matter. Does the administration view the Muslim umma (community) as a counterbalance to governments? That is a dangerous game, and ironically one associated with the Eisenhower administration policy of the 1950s and later strategies which many now think unintentionally assisted the rise of radical Islamism.

Most of this is not very impressive; much of it isn’t new. And little of it will help in a major crisis, when world organizations are slow or inactive, when allies disagree or don’t want to do much, when adversaries jeer at invitations to join a U.S.-led community and laugh at "strong disincentives."

When, as the theme song for “Ghostbusters” aptly put it:

“Something's wrong
Gloom in the room
Outside is the storm
All alone in the crib….
Your heart fills with fright….
With no time to stall.”
Who you gonna call?”

This might be what happens at 3 AM one morning, as one of Clinton's campaign commercials famously said, when a crisis actually happens:

Ring! Ring!

"This is the White House switchboard. Please pay close attention because since the last administration some of our listings may have changed.

"To update and create vehicles for cooperation with partners, Press 1 or say, `Cooperation'

"If you are one of those who disagree with us, Press 2 or say, `Engagement.'

"To speak to the UN, World Bank, IMF, G-8, G-20, OAS, Summit of the Americas, ASEAN, or APEC, please hang up and dial directly.

"To talk to the world’s sole superpower that will take leadership, please stay on the line and wait for us to realize America’s function in the world.

A major crisis some time in the next year might function as a wake-up call which forces the administration whether this course is going to remain its strategy. George W. Bush had his September 11, Clinton his Kosovo and Somalia, George Bush the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and Jimmy Carter his Iran hostage crisis, to name but a few. What lies in wait for the Obama administration, and us?

To be continued

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