Where's this big, transformational change we've been craving from Barack Obama?
No U.S. president is ever quite as simple as the caricatures that emerge from pundits’ sound bites. That said, few presidents are so complex or full of contradictions as Barack Obama. That was illustrated again this past week with Obama’s smart, troubling nomination of Dartmouth College President Jim Yong Kim to be World Bank president.
It is almost axiomatic that stories about Obama initiatives can be written at least two ways, one focusing on real accomplishments, the other on frustrating shortcomings. Take his health-care program: Is the story his passage of the first major reform in a generation, or is it instead a failure to address underlying costs or to provide coverage for all? On the economy, should he get credit for steps to oversee banks, or is this a story of the failure to fund proper enforcement or deal with problems like opaque, risky derivative markets? Is it saving America from depression or failing to address the housing crisis that started the disaster of 2008 and 2009? Is the narrative of Obama’s foreign policy about getting out of Iraq or doubling down in Afghanistan; effective sanctions against Iran or giving extra time to the mullahs; stepping in for Libya or letting Syria bleed?
For the world, one of the most frustrating of these dichotomies has to do with the hopes that Obama raised even prior to entering office that he would oversee both a transformation in America’s traditional exceptionalist, Atlanticist approach to global affairs and a consequent shift in the structure and function of global institutions. This past week, with the U.S. nomination of the Korean-born, MacArthur "genius award" winner and physician Kim to succeed Robert Zoellick at the World Bank, we have again seen two steps forward undone by having one foot immovably anchored in the past.
The steps forward are Obama’s decision to put a man who has devoted much of his life to development issues in line for a job held primarily by politicians and bureaucrats in the past and the move to pick someone for the job who was actually born in a developing country, not in the United States. But Obama failed to seize the moment to put his actions where his rhetoric was about creating a new global order and actually end the tradition of requiring that a U.S. citizen occupy the World Bank’s top job. This error was further compounded by Obama’s decision to go ahead and pick someone who was far from the best available candidate, even after correctly asserting it was time for a bank president chosen based on development credentials. Kim, though admirable and accomplished, is not better qualified for the job than other prominently mentioned U.S. choices like Larry Summers, Jeffrey Sachs, Hillary Clinton, or PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi. Nor is he in the same league as serious international contenders for the job like Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala or Colombia’s José Antonio Ocampo. All these candidates have far broader international development backgrounds and greater experience dealing with the global leadership of the international development and financial communities.
As a consequence, Obama’s nomination of Kim has produced not only criticism from some in the development community (Harvard University’s Lant Pritchett likened it to picking a minor leaguer to start at shortstop for the New York Yankees), but intensified speculation about whether the rest of the world might finally be ready to outvote the United States at the bank. Of course, if the United States obligates its European allies to honor the gentleman’s agreement that has either side voting with the other to ensure U.S. leadership at the World Bank and European leadership at the IMF, then Kim is a shoo-in.
If Obama really believes his man is the best for the job, he should publicly end the gentleman’s agreement and encourage all countries to vote for whomever they think is best. He won’t. But he should. One reason he won’t is the belief — promoted in part by Zoellick — that the U.S. Congress won’t support the World Bank if it doesn’t have a U.S. president. That’s where leadership should come in and the president should be confident that he could persuade enough members of the opposition to vote with him based on the simple fact that it’s in the U.S. interest to do so as a way of leveraging limited American contributions into a safer, more prosperous world.
But beyond the considerations associated with World Bank politics or operations, there is a bigger issue here. Obama is not the transformational figure on the global stage many expected him to be. Certainly there are myriad positive achievements that deserve respect — getting out of Iraq, undoing much of the damage done to the U.S. reputation associated with that war, fashioning a coalition to oust Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi, pivoting to Asia, recognizing the importance of the U.S.-India relationship, etc. But while it is clear that the era of bullying, values-compromising, international law-breaking policies of George W. Bush’s administration are over, what Obama has replaced it with is exceptionalism-lite.
America may not invade countries with great armies as it did in Iraq, but instead the country is increasingly relying on attacks by drones and special operations forces in violation of national sovereignty worldwide — raising the specter of the rich United States waging white-collar wars against poor and failed states. Such tactics may not be as boldly contemptuous of international law, but they are still illegal and arrogant. America may not publicly thumb its noses at the international system that it created, but neither has it renounced the elements of that system that anachronistically and anti-democratically give special privileges and disproportionate power to the victors of a war that ended almost seven decades ago.
Perhaps it was the fact that Obama’s father was born in Kenya or that he spent part of his childhood in Indonesia that led the world to think he would embrace a different approach. Perhaps it was his and his cabinet’s repeated rhetoric that the United States wanted to reflect and respect a new global order with its actions. Perhaps it was his early embrace of a broader group of international decision-makers like the G-20 or Secretary of State Clinton’s focus on strengthening ties in Asia and with big emerging markets.
But that’s not where things stand now. The G-20 has not in fact emerged as a centerpiece of a new international order, and the United States’ dealings with emerging powers like India may have been strengthened, but look at how prickly Washington remains when such new players dare to offer contrary approaches (see the backlash to Turkey and Brazil’s Iran initiative). Against that backdrop, the World Bank choice is another missed opportunity to do the right thing and actively seek to remake the outmoded, unjust international order.
Is Obama’s America an improvement over that which immediately preceded it? No doubt. Is the good he has done compromised by the seemingly enduring view that there should be one set of rules and privileges for America and rich countries and another for the world’s poor? It is.
But it’s not too late — in his remaining year, or more likely five, there’s still time for a more confident president to go from promising compromiser to agent of lasting and overdue change.