Sunday, April 5, 2009

President Obama's Latent Realism

If there was one message President Obama wanted to send to allies in his trip to the G-20 Summit in Europe, it was to say that he is not George Bush, and the era of arrogant American unilateralism is over. In Strasbourg, France, the President said, "We exercise our leadership best when we are listening ... when we show some element of humility."

Does humility engender respect or does it evidence weakness? This week in Europe, President Obama was applauded and cheered, but this soft power didn’t seem to translate to much. The score is 0-1 in Round One of Liberalism versus Realism. I think the President knows this, and is merely waiting to cash in the store of goodwill he banked this week. As the major decisions of the presidency are made quietly behind the desk at the Oval Office, not in international summits, we should not mistake Obama's courtesies as the prologue of things to come.

The President could not have missed the setbacks he encountered in this trip. Sure, he successfully mediated the disagreement between Chinese President Hu Jintao and French President Nicolas Sarkozy so that the G-20 would "take note" rather than fully endorse a list of rogue offshore tax havens. But the American president's newfound respect for the world did not engender newfound cooperation or an increased willingness to take America’s lead. (And we should not have expected otherwise, for courtesies are exchanged only up to the point when conflicting interests are at stake.) Europe was not malleable to the president’s call for a larger global stimulus package, and far from enthusiastic at his call to welcome Turkey into the European Union. NATO allies only agreed to sending 5,000 more non-combat troops to aid the US war effort in Afghanistan. And of course, the President stood before a crowd of 20,000 people in Prague painting a utopian portrait of a nuclear-free world just hours after North Korea successfully tested a long-range missile launch.

President Obama’s European trip was a very well orchestrated and executed photo-op. There is no doubt that Europe is feeling the love, but it is unclear if she is returning it in real ways that matter. The dance of diplomatic and royal protocols may have thrilled the public and the media, but on things that matter, the president squarely confronted the limits of symbolism and gesture.

After all, the president did let slip in the same speech in which he was extolling humility that “when we recognize we may not always have the best answer but we can always encourage the best answer.” In the end, (even ) the Liberal Way is still the American Way. And I expect, as Theodore Roosevelt once counselled, the president's soft voice will soon be amplified by a big stick.

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