Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Rainbow Tour

A month ago, I wrote, "Barack Obama got elected by promoting the fact that he was not George W. Bush. Now he is governing by promoting the fact that he is not Rush Limbaugh."

Now that the president has made his first big foray abroad, I think it is safe to say that his foreign policy, like his campaign, amounts to him promoting the fact that he is not George W. Bush. After eight years of so-called "cowboy diplomacy," we are now getting community organizer diplomacy.

In the terms of coverage, what was striking was how virtually all the media outlets, even ones disposed to give him the most favourable treatment, like National Public Radio, commented on how much his appearances were like campaign events. On one level this is not a bad thing. Among the many frustrating aspects of the Bush administration was the fact that it was totally miserable about the public relations aspects of promoting U.S. foreign policy. To be fair, many of the things that Obama said in Turkey about respecting Islam as one of the world's great religions were also said by Bush. But many people around the world did not take Bush seriously, and the Bush administration did little to effectively counteract the narrative that he was on some sort of mission of Christian aggression. People are more receptive to a positive message about America vis-à-vis the Islamic world when it comes from Obama, and that is all to the good.

Indeed, Obama could have pointed to many instances in recent history when America has come to the aid of Moslems: the liberation of Kuwait in 1990 and intervention to stop massacres (by ostensible Christians) in Bosnia in 1995 and in Kosovo in 1999. And, while it may be counter-productive to bring up the Iraq war in this context, that invasion did remove a tyrant who had caused the deaths of staggering numbers Moslems, through wars with his neighbors as well as directly through atrocities committed against citizens of his own country. But Obama did not refer to this history. He essentially accepted as a given the popular image in much of the Islamic world of pre-Obama America being anti-Islam and presented himself as a break from the past.

The problem with this approach is that, while it may enhance Obama's own personal popularity with Moslems, it doesn't necessarily do much to change the perception of America in general.

Now, a lot of Americans are very happy to have a president who is popular in other countries and who attracts enthusiastic crowds wherever he goes. It certainly is a change from the last eight years. But I have seen this movie before. Bill Clinton was personally very popular in Europe when he was president. But that personal popularity did not translate into Europeans looking at the America's government or culture much differently. Many, if not most, Europeans were quite handy at compartmentalizing their admiration for Clinton as separate from their resentment of the United States in general. There is no reason to think it will be any different under Obama. Besides, popular opinion aside, virtually all countries base their policies on national self-interest and not on how much they happen to personally like the leader of the Free World. Thus, in terms of tangible results, Obama's European tour did not turn out very differently from what Bush would likely have achieved: no stimulus packages from continental Europe (which Bush probably wouldn't even have suggested anyway) and only token support for the war in Afghanistan. When this apparently meagre outcome was pointed out to administration spokesmen, they said that the president was planting the seeds for future results. We shall see, but the outcome of this G20 summit looked extremely reminiscent of the outcome of every similar kind of summit going back years. And there is no reason to think that future summits will be much different.

Still, tone and atmospherics are not completely irrelevant. And Obama's more contrite and humble manner has to be a breath of fresh air to foreign leaders. On the other hand, one has to wonder what European leaders thought of Obama actively promoting Turkish membership in the European Union, which is a matter that is pretty much an internal European issue.

In the long run, what are we more likely to remember about this first foreign trip by the president, if we remember it all? Footage of foreign crowds cheering the Obamas? Maybe. But, depending on future events, it could also be the fact that, at the very moment the president was giving a talk on nuclear disarmament, the North Koreans were sending a missile off in the general direction of Pearl Harbor.