Barack Obama’s great test

Godfrey Hodgson
30 September 2009

A whirlwind week of international diplomacy in the United States, in which Barack Obama was at the very centre, provides as true a measure as any of the emerging character of his political leadership.  The news is not good. For this intense series of high-profile events and meetings on 22-25 September 2009 - from the United Nations climate-change conference to the UN general-assembly circus and a range of bilateral meetings with foreign leaders - confirms the limitations of Obama's style and approach.   

Godfrey Hodgson was director of the Reuters' Foundation Programme at Oxford University, and before that the Observer's correspondent in the United States and foreign editor of the Independent. Among his books are The World Turned Right Side Up: a history of the conservative ascendancy in America (Houghton Mifflin, 1996; The Gentleman from New York: Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Houghton Mifflin, 2000); More Equal Than Others: America from Nixon to the new century (Princeton University Press, 2006); and The Myth of American Exceptionalism (Yale University Press, 2009)

Among Godfrey Hodgson's openDemocracy articles:

"Barack Obama: at the crossroads of victory" (11 June 2008)

"A game of two halves" (15 July 2008)

"Welcome to the party: American convention follies" (18 August 2008)

"America's foreign-policy election" (28 August 2008)

"America's economy election" (17 October 2008)

"Yes he can!" (6 November 2008)

"Change?" (2 December 2008)

"An end and a beginning" (5 January 2009)

"Barack Obama: don't waste the crisis" (6 February 2009)

"Barack Obama's reality gap" (27 February 2009)

"Barack Obama: end of the beginning" (30 March 2009)

"Barack Obama's hundred days" (29 April 2009)

"Barack Obama: a six-month assessment" (10 July 2009)

"Barack Obama's world" (16 July 2009)

"The United States: democracy, with interests" (10 August 2009)

"The Kennedys, the Democrats, and Obama" (27 August 200In the script

President Obama's people announced that Pittsburgh was chosen as the site for the Group of Twenty (G20) meeting on 24-25 September 2009 because it is a city that has regenerated itself. Such talk recalls the loud claims of a "renaissance" in Detroit, and more widely the belief of earlier presidents (notably Ronald Reagan) that merely to see the glories of middle America would convert sceptical foreigners into admirers of the American way.

The strenuous pre-summit effort to portray Pittsburgh (a city that has lost its steel industry and more than half its population) as a case study in reinvention was always a tough sell. But it is equally hard to see the international event there or those earlier in New York as convincing witness to the power and vigour of the Obama administration.

True, at the United Nations general assembly, the president made another of his wonderful speeches: broad in its sweep, generous and thoughtful. With wisdom, and with an insight into the problems of an infinitely complicated and deeply troubled world, he identified four major problems to which he promised to give priority.

His administration, he promised, would do its best to revive the world's economy, to address climate change, to prevent Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, and to bring peace to Israel and Palestine.

These are all admirable aspirations, and it is perhaps unreasonable to hope that the president might have admitted that the United States has been largely responsible for each of these problems. The direct cause of the financial meltdown, after all, was the behaviour of American mortgage-lenders and the sellers of toxic derivatives; and no other country, despite stiff competition from Europe (and latterly China) has contributed so much to climate change as the United States.

The Iranian elite's sense of strategic vulnerability, and its consequent yearning for nuclear weapons, can be traced to American (and British) interference in that country's politics. And while there is plenty of blame to go around for the poisonous politics of the middle east, many would argue that the long years in which Washington systematically sided with Israel against the Palestinians, interrupted by only sporadic attempts to be even-handed, have had at least something to do with the murderous stalemate that has resulted.

It appears too that President Obama, who owed no small share of his worldwide popularity to his early opposition to the war in Iraq, is now committed to pursuing a war in Afghanistan which (as his own generals too say) cannot be won without further investments of men and money. The corruption surrounding the Afghani elections makes this an even less appealing prospect. It remains to be seen whether the delays in responding to General Stanley McChrystal's recommendations indicate the beginnings of a change in this pivotal conflict.

Barack Obama is increasingly coming to look like Lyndon B Johnson, a brilliantly gifted politician whose ambition to build a "great society" was sacrificed because of the war in Vietnam.

The heart of the Obama approach is now clear. He genuinely wants to move away from the frozen folly of the neo-conservative Project for a New American Century, but he is not willing to take the political risk of acknowledging America's responsibility for the problems he wants to solve.

Moreover, he has not really shown himself willing to confront the roots of what has gone wrong with American foreign policy.

He has shown courage, for example in reversing the provocative missile-shield policies in Poland and the Czech republic, which no one really believed was aimed at Iran, but was part of the foolhardy Bush-Cheney attempts to invade Russia's strategic space.

He has repeatedly shown an understanding of how other nations feel about the American imperium, and no one can doubt that he is sincere in offering an open hand instead of a mailed fist to the world. Yet it is now clear that he simply did not, and probably still does not, understand the scale of the difficulty that the United States faces.

The president understood that he must close the prison-camp at Guantánamo Bay. But he did not understand how difficult it would be to close it, and in fact he has still not succeeded in doing so. He hoped that America's "allies" would be happy to help out by receiving men who - at least in the judgment of the American government - were murderous fanatics. Still less does anyone in Washington seem to understand that "Gitmo" itself was always an absurd colonial anomaly of the kind Americans used to denounce. Nor does there seem any will to undo the creation of an even more scandalous, though militarily more useful, colony in the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia.

The problem is that the Republicans have profited politically for years by accusing the Democrats of endangering America's security. That is why, among other things, the Obama administration dare not invite accusations of weak liberalism by vigorously pursuing the perpetrators and the authors of torture, "extraordinary rendition" and the idea that the United States stood above the demands of international law.

Obama is a good enough liberal, no doubt, to dislike the consequences. But he acknowledges raison d'état. He does not, for example, want to risk undermining morale at the CIA in the interest of vindicating principles of human rights (see Garry Wills, "Entangled Giant", New York Review of Books, 8 October 2009).

In several other respects the Obama administration is far less different from its predecessors, going right back to the cold-war era, than its admirers hoped when it entered office. Afghanistan is the classic case (see Thomas E Ricks, "Bush and Obama: panic vs. dither", Foreign Policy, 29 September 2009). But even more disarticulated is the administration's attitude to, respectively, China and Europe.

At the limit

Washington is confused about China. China is a communist dictatorship with an appalling human-rights record, and the only power with the ability (through use of its economic hold over the United States) seriously to frustrate US policy; yet Washington's instinct is to treat China as a potential partner in the domination of the world. Nothing could be more foolish than the fashionable Washington talk about a "G2" of the United States and China. It is fortunate for the United States, and for the rest of the world, that it is not going to happen.

Towards Europe, on the contrary - and this was one of the few things that emerged with any clarity in Pittsburgh - the Obama administration is in some respects even less friendly than its predecessor.

It is absolutely right that the time has come to bring to an end the world political and economic system set up to establish American hegemony at Bretton Woods and Dumbarton Oaks in 1944-45. It was high time to see that at least twenty countries, not six or seven or eight, need to be consulted about the world's economic arrangements. No doubt, too, it was time to bring the constitution of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) up to date.

Many of America's admirers around the world did not realise that in the name of international cooperation and democracy, the United States established a constitutional regime whereby important questions must be decided by a majority of 85%; and that the United States, with a guaranteed 17% of the vote, would always have a veto (but would not be generally seen to have one...).

The arrangement is inescapably reminiscent of the maverick Victorian liberal MP Henry Labouchère's wisecrack about William Gladstone: he didn't so much mind the old man having the ace of spades up his sleeves, but he did object to being told that the Almighty had put it there.

Because Europe is divided into many different states, and no doubt because many American politicians and policy-makers find European attitudes annoying, American policy does not recognise that collectively Europe has a bigger economy than the United States and far bigger than China (even if China's growth has been spectacular).

The same mindset conditions American policy towards Iran. The "allies" are to threaten the Iranians with more sanctions following revelations of Tehran's nuclear subterfuge, and they must expect to be chided if they fail to show adequate enthusiasm. But heaven forbid that they should be given a chance to decide the policy: that is Washington's prerogative. So now the guiding framework and internal power-balance of the IMF are to be "reformed". The opportunity is to be taken to reduce the power of America's longstanding (but irritating) allies, the western Europeans, and to strengthen that of the Chinese and perhaps others. But you can bet your bottom billion that that American veto will not disappear.

No one questions Barack Obama's personal goodwill, still less his political intelligence. But on the basis of his first nine months in office, his commitment to a serious reassessment of the limitations of American power - let alone to an acknowledgment of the implications of the country's relative decline - is not yet clear.

The United States has been living beyond its means, and picking quarrels it cannot win. For all his gifts and his ideals, Barack Obama either does not understand this, or is unwilling to face the political risks of further hurting national self-esteem.

openDemocracy writers on Barack Obama and the world:

John C Hulsman, "Memo to Obama: the middle east needs you" (11 November 2008)

Zaid Al-Ali, "What Obama means for Iraq" (13 November 2008)

Prince Hassan of Jordan, "The failure of force: an alternative option" (16 January 2009)

openDemocracy, "Barack Obama: hope, fear... advice" (20 January 2009)

Pervez Hoodbhoy, "Barack Obama's triple test" (21 January 2009)

Fred Halliday, "The greater middle east: Obama's six problems" (21 January 2009)

Peter DeShazo & Johanna Mendelson Forman, "Open veins, closed minds" (7 May 2009)

Tarek Osman, "The Islamic world, the United States, democracy" (15 May 2009)

Akiva Eldar, "Barack Obama: Israel's true friend" (25 May 2009)

Robert G Rabil, "Barack Obama's middle east: pragmatism and hope" (1 June 2009)

Nader Hashemi, "What Obama must say (and do) in Egypt" (3 June 2009)

openDemocracy, "East-central Europe to Barack Obama: an open letter" (22 July 2009)

Adam Isacson, "Honduras: time to choose" (23 July 2009)

Johanna Mendelson Forman, "The Baghdad bomb, the United Nations, and America" (19 August 2009)

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