Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Obama Ideology and World Affairs, Part I

By Barry Rubin

Theme One: The Obama Revolution

To get a sense of Obama administration thinking, let’s examine the speech by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the Council on Foreign Relations, July 15. Remember that the wording of such speeches is not random and that phrases and formulations are carefully chosen to convey messages.

The most chilling and perhaps symbolic of all that was said in defining this administration is the speech's ending. In conclusion, Clinton quotes the American revolutionary Thomas Paine as saying, “We have it within our power to start the world over again.”

[I should mention at this point, though, that as we shall see later, Clinton is realistic enough to show some stronger sense of continuity. In fact, on certain points, she steals ideas from George W. Bush's policy, merely asserting that this administration will do the same things better.
How much this first theme reflects the natural exuberance of a new government and how much it expresses the thinking of certain naive or foolishly ideological people--including the president himself--to whom Clinton must kow-tow will only be clear in time.]

Many will recognize this as something quintessentially American: history doesn’t matter too much; human beings are malleable; all obstacles can be swept away. It is also a basic aspect of revolutionary creeds, including those of the French, Nazi, and Russian revolutions. Such thinking is, on one hand, awe-inspiring; on the other, terrifying.

There is a more mundane English language cliché for this kind of thinking as well: reinventing the wheel. This world view can lead one to underestimate the extent to which others are bound by tradition, interests, and history. It can lead to far-reaching changes which don’t coincide with human social and psychological realities. Regarding international affairs, perhaps in more than any other aspect of endeavor, it can bring disaster.

Such thinking also reflects our current age of post-Marxist, high-technology philosophical idealism. History is seen as a series of shameful mistakes which our superior intellects will set right. Social conventions are artificially constructed. The human brain will dictate to material reality, whose existence after all is only a projection of human consciousness in the first place.

Much can be said about the weaknesses of that argument. But here’s one point. The American Revolution needed Paine’s idealism. But America’s success has been based on the thinking of founders who grounded their idealism in very realistic, even cynical, evaluations of how human beings work.

They limited government and divided power and understood that human attributes like greed had to be harnessed to develop an economic system that provided the greatest possible benefits for the largest possible number. Progress had to be incremental, based on working with the actual, existing world, with all its inevitable shortcomings.

Always, these founders understood, there would be people convinced that only they possessed absolute truth, that their ideas were the only ones of value, that these ideas must be imposed on the masses for the good of the masses.

And such people would have to be fought and defeated, at home or in the world.

No, the Obama administration does not have the power, even in partnership with other countries, to start the world all over again. Indeed, one of its most important tasks must be to save the world from those who want to do so.

Theme Two: Leadership through partnership

In more practical, modest terms, what mechanism does the administration plan to use to project U.S. power in the world:

“With more states facing common challenges,” said Clinton, “we have the chance, and a profound responsibility, to exercise American leadership to solve problems in concert with others. That is the heart of America’s mission in the world today.”

This is a “key concept, “American leadership…in concert with others” through “common interests, shared values, and mutual respect.” In other words, the idea of American leadership is accepted but not one that is too unilateral. There will be consultation and cooperation. At times, President Barrack Obama has seemed to reject the idea of American leadership, so is this Clinton’s view or a concept of balanced compromise within the administration?

Such a concept is designed against the “bad old days” of President George W. Bush’s “unilateralism” and unpopularity. But the Obama administration’s approach could be a trap in itself

In this approach, the United States cannot get too far ahead. Sometimes leaders do have to tell followers or junior partners what to do. On the issue of Iranian sanctions, for example, the United States will probably be bound by the lowest common denominator, and Russia’s denominator is about as low as one can get.

What happens when those with all the shared values, common interests, and respect don’t do what you want them to do? And suppose they don’t want to accept U.S. leadership at all?

Clinton tried to cover this problem. Some believe that:

“The rise of other nations and our economic troubles here at home as signs that American power has waned. Others simply don’t trust us to lead; they view America as an unaccountable power, too quick to impose its will at the expense of their interests and our principles. But they are wrong….

“America will always be a world leader as long as we remain true to our ideals and embrace strategies that match the times. So we will exercise American leadership to build partnerships and solve problems that no nation can solve on its own, and we will pursue policies to mobilize more partners and deliver results.”

Obviously, mobilizing more partners is important; equally obviously it can get in the way of delivering results. Every administration, including that of Bush, took the same approach, seeking some balance between keeping  partners happy (more popularity, fewer results) and pushing through one’s own policy (less popularity, more results).

At times, Clinton almost sounds as if the United States is to be a clearing house rather than a leader:

“We’ll work through existing institutions and reform them.…We’ll use our power to convene, our ability to connect countries around the world, and sound foreign policy strategies to create partnerships aimed at solving problems. We’ll go beyond states to create opportunities for non-state actors and individuals to contribute to solutions.”

It is nice to have a “new mindset” but such phrases don’t overcome old realities. Very specific issues come up; very specific decisions must be made. If you are dealing with North Korea’s nuclear weapons or Venezuela’s radical regime, all the talk of “new mindset” doesn’t get you a policy.

You can be tough or conciliatory and have all sorts of mixtures in between, but the whole point of radical regimes is that they won’t be changed by such maneuvers.

They will defy tough talk unless it becomes credible through action; they will take advantage of conciliatory concessions.

That is a lesson this administration either will or will not learn.

To be continued

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