Friday, April 3, 2009

Hope in London

While the media seems focused on such trivialities as whether Michelle Obama went too far in the manner in which she touched the queen, they have not given as much play to the historic agreements made at the G20 summit. Here was a meeting where the President of France was threatening to walk out, where China, Russia, Germany and the United States all were making competing and seemingly irreconcilable demands, ending in a far-reaching agreement that seemed to give all parties a substantial amount of what they were seeking. Yet the New York Times editorial page is complaining that the US did not get everything we wanted in terms of economic stimulus commitments by other countries. Such critics ignore the fact that countries like France and Germany were adamantly opposed to those kinds of stimulus measures, and were never going to agree to them no matter how strongly the US pushed. By sidestepping that issue, and making some compromises on our side, the US negotiators instead got these countries to commit over $1 trillion to the IMF, far more than anyone thought before the meeting was possible. Thus we achieved much of the stimulus result we were seeking, by pushing the discussion in a slightly different direction.

We are so used to the kind of diplomacy where the United States attempts to bully and threaten both its allies and adversaries into agreement with its demands, that we have yet to recognize the value of a new kind of diplomacy that seeks to achieve its ends through consensus and cooperation. It is important to remember that while making threats and refusing to compromise can make us feel righteous and powerful, that approach does not always achieve everything we want. Look, for example, at the difference between the strong coalition that George Bush I achieved in the first Gulf War through a diplomatic approach, compared to the weak coalition that George Bush II assembled through threats and bullying. Compare the agreement that President Obama achieved in London this week with what probably would have happened if the previous administration were still in power. The United States representatives would have been pounding their fists on the table demanding that others follow our approach, but everyone would probably have walked out of the meeting without much in the way of an agreement. President Obama is a master of the art of the possible. As such, he is always going to get criticized for being too accommodating, and for not fighting enough for a stronger approach. But he is going to accomplish more that way than by fighting losing battles.


  1. And yet, our "allies" do not want to commit any forces to Afghanistan. It is way to early to see what changes he has made as far as foreign policy success in Europe. I hope he does well but we do not yet know what the outcome will be.

  2. When GWB was president Europe came up with many excuses for not helping the U.S., mainly blaming things on Bush. Now that Obama is getting all nice with them they have different excuses.

    The problem is not who is the U.S. president it is who runs the European countries.

    In fact, looking at the Financial Times of London we see:

    Barack Obama’s European tour has confirmed that the new US president is admired as much abroad as at home. His diplomacy builds on this appeal. He came to listen not to lecture, he told Europe’s leaders last week, giving every sign he meant it. He is the kind of US president that Europe has longed for. Yet after the Group of 20 and Nato summits, what does this European model of a US president have to show for his efforts? Rave reviews and words of friendship – but of substance all too little.

    The G20 failed to agree on what the US sought above all, namely stronger fiscal expansion. Its communiqué blended measures already announced and commitments to do the right thing. As far as promising to maintain liberal trade and keep markets open is concerned, the same commitments were made last November and promptly broken.

    At the Nato summit, Mr Obama’s chief goal was to secure real support – meaning European troops – for US forces in Afghanistan. Europe’s governments congratulated him on his new strategy and offered some extra troops on a temporary and conditional basis, but told the president, in effect, to expect no serious help in rooting out al-Qaeda. That kind of work is too dangerous for Europe’s soldiers.

    On both issues, Mr Obama’s proposals are sound and deserved a generous response. Europe’s stimulus is indeed too puny. France and Germany, especially, should do more. The preference of European governments to move first on reform of global regulation is ill advised. Regulatory reform is not the priority. Loosely aligned national reforms make more sense in any case than striving for a chimerical global regulator. When Europe actually has a single regulator for itself it will have more credibility in calling for one for the world.

    In Afghanistan, admittedly, doubts persist about the new aims of US policy. Mr Obama says his main goal is to deny al-Qaeda a sanctuary, yet he also talks of humanitarian help and promoting development. The line between this and the nation building that the administration sees as unwarranted and over-ambitious is not entirely clear. What matters most, though, is that Mr Obama is right when he says that al-Qaeda threatens Europe at least as much as it threatens the United States. The fight to contain it is Europe’s fight too.

    Mr Obama was by no means humiliated on this trip – the reception was too rapturous for that – but he was rebuffed nonetheless and is entitled to feel disappointed. Applause is fine, but not enough. Mr Obama deserves Europe’s help.

  3. You make some good points. What you're talking about seems to be the problem every American President has had with Europe. Clinton had similar issues trying to get European governments to address Bosnia and Kosovo.

  4. Well that's the thing. Obama says his positive message will change the direction of U.S. foreign policy but my point is Europeans are a finicky bunch and whether a U.S. president attended Oxford, wears a cowboy hat, or gives great speeches they will still get the same reception.

    "Hope and change" might do well as sound bites but, I think, in the world of diplomacy they don't hold water (which is something the U.S. press probably won't widely report).

    It's good to be an optimist but a dash of Realpolitik is needed, too.

  5. I don’t consider myself an optimist, and I’m not sure Obama does either. The Obama campaign did inspire me to try to remain positive, however. So I try to restrain my usual cynical nature on my blog. I think there is a difference between being positive and being optimistic. The definition of an optimist is someone who thinks things always turn out for the best. Anyone who thinks that is naive or a fool. Being positive, on the other hand, means that you try to encourage hope and change, and you promote peace and education and prosperity and well-being and other good things. But you also recognize that making positive change is a long, slow, difficult process, and you have to be realistic about what you can achieve and wary of your adversaries.

  6. See but that's the thing... many people voted for "hope and change" without knowing or caring what that really meant.