The dangers of identity diplomacy…

President Obama’s speech today, welcome as it was in tenor and intent, sought to test whether American identity politics could effectively translate into a new form of U.S. identity diplomacy. While there has always been some element of playing to cultural and historical affinities in international relations, it is telling and rather worrisome that a ...

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585252_090604_rothb2.jpg

President Obama's speech today, welcome as it was in tenor and intent, sought to test whether American identity politics could effectively translate into a new form of U.S. identity diplomacy. While there has always been some element of playing to cultural and historical affinities in international relations, it is telling and rather worrisome that a speech offered as a centerpiece of the new president's Middle East policy spoke to a type of relationship that has seldom if ever been similarly invoked in U.S. diplomatic history-that between our country and a religion. 

Seventy-eight times in his 55-minute speech did President Obama use the words Islam or Muslim, their variants or make mention of Islamic texts, language or institutions. The central thesis of the speech was that the United States needs to redefine its relationship with the Muslim world. And while it is hard to be against strengthening our relations with any group, this approach does contain a trap. It posits the existence of something that does not really exist. With over a billion members, "the Muslim world" encompasses a group so geographically, culturally, ideologically, and ethnically diverse as to be almost a meaningless term. 

President Obama’s speech today, welcome as it was in tenor and intent, sought to test whether American identity politics could effectively translate into a new form of U.S. identity diplomacy. While there has always been some element of playing to cultural and historical affinities in international relations, it is telling and rather worrisome that a speech offered as a centerpiece of the new president’s Middle East policy spoke to a type of relationship that has seldom if ever been similarly invoked in U.S. diplomatic history-that between our country and a religion. 

Seventy-eight times in his 55-minute speech did President Obama use the words Islam or Muslim, their variants or make mention of Islamic texts, language or institutions. The central thesis of the speech was that the United States needs to redefine its relationship with the Muslim world. And while it is hard to be against strengthening our relations with any group, this approach does contain a trap. It posits the existence of something that does not really exist. With over a billion members, “the Muslim world” encompasses a group so geographically, culturally, ideologically, and ethnically diverse as to be almost a meaningless term. 

Further, as some critics have rightly pointed out, despite the occasional acknowledgement that Muslims may exist in Asia, Africa or the United States, the speech was primarily addressed to the Muslims of the greater Middle East. Not only does this unintentionally marginalize Muslims who are not Arab or Persian, upon further examination the focus on that region reminds us that our problems are not with Muslims per se but with often deeply divided subsets of that group with other sect-related, national, tribal or other identities. This in turn underscores why repairing relations with Islam is not a highly meaningful goal from a practical standpoint (because Islam is hardly monolithic and our relationship with it is hardly central to solving the problems we face).  

While the purpose of the speech seemed to be to try to engender better will toward the United States and our new administration…and while it may have succeeded in this respect…from a diplomatic perspective one can only get so far by appealing to an entity that doesn’t really exist. Ultimately the representatives of the U.S. government have to sit down with representatives of local governments and most of the governments in the region are not known for their responsiveness to the needs or moods of their people. Even among those that are democratic such as Iraq, Pakistan and Iran, divisions among Islamic sects or between fundamentalist and moderate factions are likely to trump generalized views that this U.S. administration is less offensive to Muslims than the last one. 

In the United States, identity politics work because churches or synagogues mobilize voters. In the Islamic world the effect is likely to be much less easily translated into political movement. This is not to say that today’s speech does damage to the United States. That could only happen if the administration were to expect too much of it in the way of meaningful consequences.

In the end, I guess I am of the school that believes in the strictest and most far reaching interpretation of the separation between church and state. There’s no place for the cozy relationship that has emerged between the two in U.S. politics or in the politics of the Middle East. And there is no place for it in U.S. diplomacy. In the first instance, it is a matter of principle that should divide the two. In the second, it is a matter of practicality and a sense of history. To my mind, America should have no relationship with Islam to repair…or with any other religion. Our government should be blind to such issues and treat all countries with tolerance and respect. Which is just one more reason why today’s speech, for all the merits clearly underlying its conception and evident in its execution, made me uneasy.

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David 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. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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