David Rothkopf

Reflecting on the “Global Apology Tour”…

At breakfast this morning a leading Democratic policy thinker referred to President Obama’s recent jaunts to Europe and the Caribbean as his “global apology tour.” This was a Democratic supporter of the president talking. (And listening.) He winced while he was saying it and laughed nervously. But the message is clear: it’s all well and ...

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At breakfast this morning a leading Democratic policy thinker referred to President Obama’s recent jaunts to Europe and the Caribbean as his “global apology tour.” This was a Democratic supporter of the president talking. (And listening.) He winced while he was saying it and laughed nervously. But the message is clear: it’s all well and good to make nice but these two forays into international diplomacy have to be viewed purely as scene-setters. Obama set a tone. He checked the “I’m not W” box. But the deliverables were negligible at best. Die Zeit’s Josef Joffe very smartly explained this point in his weekend Wall Street Journal piece “Obama’s Popularity Doesn’t Mean Much Abroad.” In it, Joffe wrote:

George W. Bush was heartily disliked in Europe west of Warsaw, and Mr. Obama is universally loved. But how well does that popularity translate into power? How far could President Obama push his agenda with, say, German Chancellor Angela Merkel or French President Nicolas Sarkozy? About as far as you can throw a piano.”

Europe applauded while the flashbulbs popped but beyond promises of a replenishment for the IMF which may be hard to keep, the policy headlines from the trip were more about what did not happen than that which did occur either in terms of global stimulus, in terms of more effective global regulation or in terms of greater NATO support in AfPak. 

The story was the same in Trinidad. Obama made a good impression. He offered a “new beginning.” He deflected a few tense moments with what are becoming his signature quips (whether it be the already tired old saw that he shouldn’t be blamed for things that happened when he was three months old…nowhere nearly as charming as Reagan’s self-deprecating quips about being too old…or commenting on Daniel Ortega’s attempt to reclaim his revolutionary youth by noting snarkily its 50 minute duration). 

But on the deliverables side, he sought to create the impression of change in Cuba policy by undertaking an incremental adjustment in a policy that’s a complete failure — kind of the equivalent of proposing that his first step in addressing GMs problems would be a major rethink of cup-holder designs. And while it is undeniable that Raul Castro’s response was not a complete diss (in fact, it was somewhat warmer than NATO’s response to the requests for more troops or Europe’s response to the request for a global stimulus) in the end all we got was slight forward progress on something where great progress is eminently achievable…and long overdue. Want to see a thoughtful suggestion for how to handle it: go read former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda’s op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal on the subject. Want to see how opposition to change in Cuba has eroded? See the New York Times article on the new Bendixen study showing that two thirds of Cuban Americans welcome lifting all travel restrictions to that country and embrace the Obama thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations. 

On the big issue of the moment, dealing with the global economic downturn, the Summit of the Americas delivered effectively nothing — a negligible $100 MM microfinance program that while worthy, happens to come at a time when the effectiveness of microfinance is coming under some scrutiny. But big commitments…replenishment of the IDB’s funds, for example…are still “being studied.” Very little but lip service was paid to an issue that is likely to send 50 million people in the hemisphere back into absolute poverty.

And so, at the end of the day in Port of Spain, Joffe’s observations hold. People may feel better about Obama than Bush but it is far from a guarantee that will translate into improved hemispheric actions in any area, even the policy priorities cited by the meeting.

The same doubts about the approach arise in the Middle East. Hint at warming up to Iran? It gets the United States a nice quote from Ahmadinejad saying “We welcome the U.S. change of policy, provided these changes are fundamental and essential.” But of course, he makes that quote while making a disastrous appearance at the UN Conference on Racism in which his attacks on Israel prompted eight governments to walk out. (You have to wonder both what the UN thought it was achieving by inviting Ahmadinejad to this conference or what the eight governments that walked out thought was going to happen at the conference since it was long ago apparent to anyone with a functioning cortex that the event would be used as it was. On the other hand, I suppose, the good news is that at least we had a UN event that delivered what it promised — they convened a conference on racism and racism is what they got.)

Wanting everyone to like us is not a policy, it’s a childlike wish. Seeking improved relations and greater dialogue is undeniably in our interest, but to what end? The first date with the world is over. It has gone pretty well. Right now everything is anticipation. But anyone over 18 has lived through this phase and knows what comes next. And, look at any of the issues at these meetings where progress was not made and it becomes clear that it ain’t gonna be easy. But I think the challenges go much, much deeper than that in a world in which the old policy playbooks and ideological standbys are out the window.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

 Twitter: @djrothkopf

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