HONG KONG – U.S. President Barack Obama has been duly installed with pomp and ceremony for another term in office. He celebrated with another of his trademark fine speeches. But it was a bit like a minor Mozart opera, too many pretty words. And as my mother used to say, fine words butter no parsnips: Even the greatest rhetoric does not easily translate into action. Both the United States and — especially — the global world are unprettily much as grubby as when Obama first wooed them with his flights of fancy words four years ago.
For America’s international role, Obama risks being distracted by domestic dogfights that will sap his energy and gobble up his political capital.
For Asia, especially for anyone concerned about relations with a rising China, it is potentially bad news that the U.S. seems to have little space for serious consideration of intricate issues involving complicated delicate balances between countries, disturbing which could set off a devastating chain reaction.
Obama has a heaped plateful of domestic problems, starting with the unresolved debt and deficit issues and a supposedly recovering weak economy. Unemployment of 7.8 is one indicator of a country with big problems. Blogger Tyler Durden in Zero Hedge produced a list of “75 economic numbers from 2012 that are almost too crazy to believe”, which show a sick, not merely an unequal society: Among them, 48 of Americans and 57 of all children are either “low income” or living in poverty; a million schoolchildren are homeless; four major U.S. banks each have $40 trillion exposure to derivatives; student loan debt is more than $1 trillion; only 24.6 of all U.S. jobs are considered “good jobs”.
Durden doesn’t even mention that an ordinary worker at McDonald’s would have to work 550 years to earn the annual pay of the fast food company’s CEO.
Obama is presumably searching for his place in history in announcing new crusades for tougher gun controls, for action on climate change and for gay rights. To non-Americans, these campaigns might look reasonable or even sensible, but in the U.S. each has attracted opposition ranging from bloody-minded to crazy. The National Rifle Association stooped to new depths when it called Obama “an elitist hypocrite” for dismissing its idea of armed guards in all schools when his own daughters have armed Secret Service protection.
The president’s resounding plea for equality as “the star that guides us still, just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall” gave gays great hope since Obama was putting gay rights on the same level as struggles by women and blacks. At Seneca Falls in 1848 the movement for women’s suffrage was launched. Selma in Alabama was where Martin Luther King in 1965 started his marches for black right. At the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village in 1969 gays hit back against police raids against them, triggering the gay rights movement. Obama has presumably calculated whether making gays a touchstone for equality is worth antagonizing a new bunch of opponents.
In foreign policy, the U.S. faces myriad flash points, all clamoring for urgent attention and all sharing the same feature that a single small change could produce kaleidoscopically large repercussions.
Stopping Iran from developing nuclear weapons is the top of the priority list of many commentators in Washington’s think-tanks: If Tehran goes nuclear, it will encourage hosts of other countries, from the responsible to the totally irresponsible to do the same, either for protection or just to show that they can.
The Arab Spring — regarded as good — has taken on a worrying Islamic turn that has caught Washington without a properly thought out policy. Obama naturally did not want to be sucked into wasting American lives far from home as his predecessor did in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Libya, Moammar Gadhafi was toppled reasonably quickly, which seemed good news, but there has been a price to pay in with political uncertainty and the spread of the former Libyan dictator’s weapons to radicals in Mali and Algeria, countries not hitherto on the U.S. global map.
In Syria, the discredited Assad regime clings to power thanks partly to support from Beijing and Moscow, but only at the price of daily bloodshed and the growing influence of Islamists within the opposition.
In foreign policy especially, Obama’s fine promises have been exposed as clouds of rhetoric. In the Middle East, leaders are asking, “Where is America?” In Beijing, by comparison, China is all too aware and resents Obama’s pivot to Asia, claiming that it is intended to undermine China’s rise.
In the lead essay of a presidential briefing book published by Brookings, Martin Indyk and Robert Kagan say that the world is at a “plastic juncture,” a time of uncertainty and opportunity. The question for America, they say, is: “Will America turn inward and away from an increasingly messy world? Or will we launch a new effort to strengthen and extend, both geographically and temporally, the liberal world order from which Americans and so many others round the world have benefited?”
The two say that Obama accomplished little in his first term, apart from raising America’s profile and deepening engagement in East Asia. “Most of the major challenges are much as you found them when you took office, or worse: from the stalled Middle East peace process and turmoil in the Arab world to Iran’s continuing march toward a nuclear weapons capability to China’s increasing assertiveness in East Asia.”
The briefing book outlines a series of big bets, which should be the active focus of U.S. policy, and black swans, events with low probability but great potential for damage if they occur. China is the most prominent entry of the big bets, with Kenneth Lieberthal arguing that Beijing must be brought back in and friendly relations restored, while providing reassurances to allies and partners of the U.S. in Asia. “Nobody in Asia wants to take sides between the United States and China, and none any longer fear a G-2. All seek ‘wise management’ of U.S.-China relations. Any initiative that improves U.S.-China relations and contributes to regional stability can, therefore, potentially enhance U.S. position throughout Asia.” And everyone lived happily ever after, as it says in fairy story books.
Unfortunately real life is not so easy, not helped by the fact that China’s leaders have an old-fashioned and increasingly prickly nationalistic view of the world and their empire. Japan, equally unfortunately, is playing along and into China’s hands with its own nationalism that tries to refight and rewrite the battles of 70 to 100 years ago.
The truth is that in this increasingly global world, the old rules will not do. It is a fact of growing global links as well as a new order of rising economic powers. The U.S. global policeman no longer has the energy or the resources or the benevolence to be trusted to preserve order.
China’s insistence that a country’s affairs are only its own business is helping to produce disasters in Syria and the Middle East. In its backyard, Beijing’s prickly insistence that it alone owns exclusive rights to its far-flung waters is sparking potentially dangerous nationalisms that could destroy the Asian economic miracle. Sadly, Obama offered no new global vision.
Kevin Rafferty is editor in chief of Plainwords Media.