An Army of One?
Debating the "Obama effect."
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images Diplomatic dynamo: Is the U.S. president winning hearts and minds, or just setting expectations he can't possibly hope to meet?
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images Diplomatic dynamo: Is the U.S. president winning hearts and minds, or just setting expectations he can’t possibly hope to meet?
Mir Hossein Mousavi, the 67-year-old Iranian architect-turned Islamist revolutionary-turned moderate politician, doesnt have much in common with the 47-year-old African-American former law professor from Chicago who occupies the White House. Yet thanks to the mass movement that has given him a genuine shot at defeating President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in this month’s Iranian elections, Mousavi has found himself touted as Iran’s Obama and his politically savvy wife dubbed Irans Michelle. Something is clearly afoot.
Never has a U.S. president come into office with the same combination of unfamiliarity and high expectations as Barack Obama. Despite an almost complete lack of diplomatic experience, hopes were high from Beirut to Berlin that the new president would not only profoundly change the way his own country operated in the world, but inspire others with his message of change.
Since taking office, it’s safe to say that Obama had made the United States more popular, but some commentators have gone further, attributing events — ranging from Hezbollah’s defeat in Lebanon’s elections, to newly conciliatory gestures from the Kremlin, to the unexpected rise of Mousavi — to the power of Obama’s personal diplomacy.
But can one man’s speeches (or his mere existence) really change the course of political developments around the world? We asked seven sharp political observers to weigh on whether the Obama effect really is inspiring change throughout the world, or whether he is getting credit for developments that would have happened anyway. In these seven smart takes, which range from the enthusiastic to the sharply skeptical, another question arises: Even if Obama is really having an impact, is it really wise to run U.S. public diplomacy as an army of one? Can the Obama effect survive after the enthusiasm for Obama himself has faded? FP
By James Traub
Statesmen are always calculating how much stress the world diplomatic market will bear. How hard is it worth pushing China to relax currency restrictions? Or Egypt to permit competitive elections? Or Russia to live with NATO members on its borders? How much of a price will the United States have to pay?
It’s easy to suppose — especially if you are a realist who thinks of states as more-or-less-rational calculators of their sovereign interests — that such a calculus is fixed, and thus that the only variable is the amount of pressure one brings to bear. But that’s not so: George W. Bush, to take an example close to hand, so radically contracted the diplomatic market by treating much of the world with scorn that by 2004, Washington couldn’t have gotten a resolution supporting decolonization through the U.N. Security Council.
Barack Obama, in just a scant few months, has expanded that market back to something like its normal dimensions — if not beyond. News accounts assert that the president’s Cairo speech helped tilt the Lebanese election to the secular March 14 coalition — despite what we had been told was maladroit last-minute meddling by Vice President Joe Biden. The Lebanese outcome, in turn, as well as reverberations from the speech, may give a boost to challengers in Friday’s election in Tehran. A victory by the opposition would also make it more difficult for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, scheduled to deliver a major address on Sunday, to insist that Israel can make no concessions to the Palestinians until the Iranian threat is removed.
Obama has already changed the market of domestic opinion on foreign affairs. By demanding a freeze on settlements in Israel, Obama threw down a challenge that, in years past, the Israel lobby would have been quick to pick up. Not now: Confronting a highly popular president who won 78 percent of the Jewish vote is not sound lobbying strategy.
With AIPAC and other mainstream groups keeping cautiously silent, legislators no longer need to fear crossing traditional red lines. Obama knows that, within reason, he has room to maneuver; and Netanyahu surely knows it too. And this, too, may affect what the prime minister says on Sunday. Middle East peace is still a long ways off, but it doesn’t feel quite so hopeless a prospect as it did last year.
Obama will be looking to expand other markets in months to come. The Bush administration’s unwillingness to take disarmament seriously gave other states the perfect pretext for recalcitrance on nonproliferation measures. Now that Obama has said that the United States will seek, over time, to eliminate nuclear weapons, states may prove more willing to uphold their end of the nuclear bargain.
The point is not that Obama is willing to pay a higher price for these achievements than Bush was, but rather that the combination of diplomacy, soft power, and popularity at home and abroad have driven the price sharply downward. Obama may discover his limits soon enough: North Korea is looking every bit as refractory as ever, while Syria and Lebanon may confound this administration as they did its predecessors. But we should hope that the president keeps behaving as if the diplomatic marketplace is infinitely expandable.
James Traub is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and author of The Freedom Agenda: Why America Must Spread Democracy (Just Not the Way George Bush Did).
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