BOSTON — Few American presidents have been greeted around the world with such relief and joy as was Barack Obama when he took office a year ago. A lot of it was simply because he was not George W. Bush. For most of the world Bush had stood for the kind of bullying, armed aggression, and a unilateral foreign policy that made it difficult to be pro-American.
The enthusiasm abroad was matched by the enthusiasm here in America, which had also become disillusioned with the Bush administration. But the “audacity of hope” was running so high a year ago that it could not possibly remain airborne at that altitude when the reality of running a country and maintaining American interests abroad came into play. It was never possible to be all things to all men.
Obama’s greatest achievement in the past year was to change the nature of the international conversation. By reaching out to Muslims in his Cairo speech, by pressing the “reset” button in relations with Russia, by reaching out to old allies who had felt disrespected by the Bush administration, by saying all the right things about recognizing China’s place in the sun, by bringing back diplomacy, Obama lanced a boil of hostility towards the United States.
And for that he won the Nobel Peace Prize — probably the only recipient ever to do so while escalating a war. In a resounding acceptance speech in Oslo, he acknowledged that his qualifications for a peace prize were somewhat questionable, and he put the world on notice that he was foremost an American president, tasked with advancing his country’s interests first.
A lot of Obama’s decline in popularity abroad is simply because of that fact. He is an American president. But diplomacy is only a means, not a goal, and so far Obama’s has achieved few tangible results.
The opening to Iran has brought nothing in the way of Iranian concessions, but it may yet make it easier for Obama to say that he has tried everything and that now is the time for increased sanctions.
Despite the constructive rhetoric, Obama came back empty-handed from China, and conceding on anti-missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic has not brought forth much from the Russians either.
It was Obama’s two visits to Copenhagen that seemed to symbolize the American president’s declining power to influence. He first went to lobby for the Olympic games and lost. He went again to lobby for a serious international approach to climate change and lost again.
Perhaps Obama’s greatest foreign policy failure was to insist that the Israelis give up all settlement activity, only to back down when the Israelis balked. It can be argued that it was a mistake to draw such a line in the sand, but once having done so it may have been fatal to Arab-Israeli peace to have backed down. The Israelis know they can get around him, and the Arabs know that Obama does not represent the change they had been led to believe would come. Thus he was unable to get any of the confidence building measures vis a vis Israel out of the Arabs for which he hoped.
As former U.S. national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, recently wrote in Foreign Affairs: Obama “has not yet made the transition from an inspiring orator to compelling statesman. Advocating that something happen is not the same as making it happen.”
According to Brezinski, how Obama handles “ three interrelated issues — the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the Iranian dilemma, and the Afghan-Pakistani conflict — will determine the United States’ global role for the foreseeable future.
“The consequences of a failed peace process in the Middle East, a military collision with Iran and an intensifying military engagement in Afghanistan and Pakistan all happening simultaneously could commit the United States for many years to a lonely and self-destructive conflict in a huge and volatile area. Eventually, that could spell the end of the United States’ current global pre-eminence.”
The truth of the matter is that Obama took power at a time when that pre-eminence was at something of a post-World War II low anyway. The global recession had not only weakened the U.S. economy, the true source of American power, but it had also called into question the entire American model of capitalism which had been in flower since the end of the Soviet Union.
Militarily, involvement in two wars had stretched out the army to such a degree that the projection of power was no longer the threat it once was.
When the neo-conservatives finally got their say with the arrival of Bush the younger, their premise that the United States was the sole superpower and could do what it liked without regard for others was already in doubt. China and India were already rising. And what the Bush administration never understood was that the end of the Soviet Union made us less able to maintain the “leadership of the free world,” because when the other half of the world became free from Communist power, people and countries no longer needed to shelter under America’s wing, and felt free to go their own way.
So it is that after one year in office Obama’s balance sheet in world opinion has taken its hits, as has the audacity of hope. In his second year, as Brzezinski put it, let’s hope for a little more audacity.
(Read an overview of how the world views Obama one year later.)