- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
Shortly after 10 a.m. this morning, Barack Obama delivered an address to the General Assembly of the United Nations that the world has waited decades to hear. Other presidents have offered many similar policy prescriptions. Others have spoken of the desire to be better partners within the international community. Others have singled out the challenges identified by Obama. Others have even delivered addresses with similar amounts of elan and periodic power.
But taken as a whole, the Obama address was as close in temperament and priorities to what might be considered the mainstream views of the international community as any delivered by an American president in recent memory. It was clear Obama is a true believer in a central role for the U.N. and the importance of strengthening it as an institution. He is a committed multilateralist. He seems to genuinely seek partnerships and solutions that lie within the bounds and among the original objectives of international law. He was strong and yet he conveyed a sense of openness to multiple views. He identified specific American interests and reiterated they are his foremost priorities but he also sent a message that he would advance them in a way that was sensitive to international concerns.
More than any president in my memory, he seemed to embrace … and indeed embody … the idea of the “human community” of which Roosevelt spoke and to which Obama referred this morning.
It is easy to note that many of his goals — from bringing peace to the Middle East to taking effective steps to combat climate change, from shepherding the world economy back to health in ways that truly creates new opportunities for all to reducing the world’s stockpiles of nuclear weapons — are just aspirations at the moment. But it is also only fair to observe that he and his administration have been active in their pursuit of each such goal after only 9 months in office.
No, pay attention citizens of earth, if history is any indicator, this is probably about as good as you are going to get out of an American president.
Consequently, now would probably be a good time to heed Obama’s core message:
Make no mistake: this cannot solely be America’s endeavor. Those who used to chastise America for acting alone in the world cannot now stand by and wait for America to solve the world’s problems alone.
Translation: “You may like what you are hearing from me today, but I am only the President of the United States. While it’s not a bad job and I am almost certainly the most powerful man in the world because I lead what is the most powerful country in the world, we’re not going to get anywhere unless you see my limits as well as my capabilities.”
On the one hand, this all means Obama leads just one country and if the world wants America to be a partner rather than a hegemon, then it’s going to have to start pulling its own weight.
In addition, however, my point about his “only” being president carries another implicit message that might be lost on many of those who were sitting in the U.N. today or watching around the world. While Barack Obama may have looked statesmanlike at the U.N. podium today and while his rhetoric soared, he is still just an employee of the American people who works in a system of robust checks and balances. (Which is just a nice way of saying he has a Congressional albatross around his neck, a screwed up political climate and a skittish constituency that is ill-informed on many vital international issues.)
On a wide range of the issues he discussed today — from global economic policy to climate, from arms controls to the role of the U.N. itself — Obama can lead but he cannot easily make his country follow him any more than he can make the world line up behind him just because he wishes they would. Indeed, the very fact that his views align with the rest of the world on key issues may make them anathema to many Americans.
As a consequence, he will need the international community to help him at home as much as they seek America’s help with their issues. In short: Without some early international wins, the world may see the promise of this new era in foreign policy fade quickly away.
This is a hard lesson for foreign leaders to grasp. I have been in meetings in which they requested the United States “make” the Congress do one thing or another. Some simply can’t or won’t understand how our system works … or how dysfunctional it is.
It has even been a hard lesson for Obama himself to grasp. I recently asked a very senior White House official, a long-time unabashed Obama loyalist, what the lesson has been toughest to learn since coming to the White House from the campaign. The individual thought for a moment and said, “Well, he was out of Washington for almost two years while he was campaigning. I think coming to grips with the culture of this town and how hard it is to change it has been the biggest surprise for [Obama].”
If it has been that hard for a guy as savvy as Obama to come to grips with, it is easy to imagine how hard it is for the rest of the world. But those who were stirred by Obama’s words today really need to understand it … and to understand that if they don’t work with Obama to help fulfill some of those areas of common vision … they are not likely to find a better partner in the White House for some time to come.
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