Tuesday, January 05, 2010

The world just isn't that into him

Robert J. Lieber, a professor of international relations at Georgetown, writes today in the Los Angeles Times to describe what he calls "Obama's can't-do style." He puts his finger on a central mistake that President Obama has made in thinking that his personal celebrity and popularity abroad would translate into diplomatic success for the United States once he was the head of the government.
First, there is Obama's remarkable solipsism, i.e., his penchant for projecting himself as the personification of U.S. policy. Personal attraction can be a useful political and diplomatic tool, and polls in Europe and to a lesser extent in Asia and the Mideast confirm that foreigners strongly prefer him to his predecessor. Nonetheless, the emphasis on the president's own persona is quickly wearing thin.
Ths we see time and again that Obama's speeches insert his own remarkable story into his argument as if to say that no country or organization such as the Olympic Committee would deny a country led by someone as marvelous as he is. Thus, he ignores a central truth that any actor on international relations needs to understand.
Second, Obama overestimates the extent to which America's adversaries determine their policies in reaction to U.S. rhetoric and policy rather than as expressions of their own values, history and interests. Emphasis on interdependence, good intentions and the belief that "the interests of nations and peoples are shared" does not go very far in explaining the motivations of Vladimir Putin, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Bashar Assad or Hugo Chavez. The message conveyed is that if only he could assure adversaries or allies that he -- and thus America -- means well, threats or problems could be mitigated or overcome altogether.

In a quest to bridge differences, the president sometimes slips into mirror-imaging by downplaying the distinction between allies and adversaries, and in seeking to equate very different kinds of responsibility. For example, his Cairo speech suggested Western sources for the region's problems and downplayed local causes such as authoritarianism, corruption and internal obstacles to social and economic progress. Anxiously anticipating how others will react may also explain Obama's curious downplaying of human rights, as in his muted response to massive protests by the Iranian people over the rigged outcome of the June presidential election, and in his recent China visit.
If he can't understand what other countries want and how their own interests drive their behavior, he won't be able to have any success in negotiating the troubled waters of the international world today. Thus, he seems to think that, if only he extended an open hand and welcoming attitude towards Iran's leaders, then they'd be happy to come to the negotiating table and get rid of their atomic ambitions. Time and again, they've slapped back with disdain Obama's open hand and gone on their way working to gain nuclear weapons as they sponsor terrorist activity around the world.

Until Obama stops thinking that other countries and organizations' response to the United States was tied up in their dislike of Bush and would be ameliorated by his inauguration, he will continue to make dangerous mistakes in world affairs.