Commentary

Obama Must Move beyond Pseudo-Events

Pundits in Washington and elsewhere have yet to outline US President Barack Obama’s Grand Strategy, or to provide an account of an Obama Doctrine of foreign policy akin to the more dramatic changes he has made in American economic policy. All they can point to is a series of “pseudo events,” the term that historian Daniel Boorstin coined to depict activity that exists for the purpose of the media publicity and has no immediate effect on real life.

From that perspective, Obama’s recent trip to Europe, in which he addressed the G-20 and NATO summits and the Turkish Parliament, as well as his participation in the Summit of the Americas, have been regarded by most of the American media as foreign policy “successes.” He has won praise for meeting with top world leaders and for his television appearances aimed at audiences in the Middle East, including the Iranian people.

But in reality, Obama can claim no concrete diplomatic accomplishments. Europe’s public and elites have been mesmerized by Obama’s personal charisma and multilateralist rhetoric; but NATO remains a relic of the Cold War and its leading members have been reluctant to send more of their troops to help the United States fight in Afghanistan. The “resetting” of Russian-American relationship may have symbolic value but has yet to produce any major policy changes. Residents of the Middle East may have been impressed by Obama’s peaceful intentions, but there has been no sign of progress on resolving the Iranian nuclear crisis or in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And notwithstanding all the anticipation for a change in US policy toward Cuba, the US economic embargo that was imposed in 1962 still remains in place.

Indeed, as they to grade the new White House occupant’s first 100 days in office, observers will find it difficult to conclude whether Obama’s first foreign policy’s steps have really strengthened American power in the world. On the progressive left, commentators and activists have been disappointed that Obama’s commitments to reverse Bush’s foreign policy have not been carried out. Meanwhile, critics on the right argue that, if anything, the efforts by Obama and his aides to project a less confrontational approach, like the one embraced by former President George W. Bush, reflects a sense of weakness or even defeatism.

But these critics are wrong. The Bush administration’s belligerent style of managing American relations with both friends and foes, so full of empty bravado and a crusading militaristic spirit, has been one of the reasons for the erosion in US global prestige in the last eight years. Obama’s emphasis on quiet diplomacy and international engagement that is backed by a genuine sense of confidence and a strong military should prove to be more effective in promoting US interests abroad.

One could imagine, for example, Obama’s predecessor responding to the recent pirate attack off the coast of Somalia by labeling the pirates as “Islamofascists,” adding them to the list of members of Axis of Evil, and threatening tough American military retaliation. By contrast, Obama’s measured response followed by a low-key but precise military action is the kind of cool approach one expects from American presidents. That the leader of the most powerful country in the world should be willing to listen to, and treat with respect, foreign critics of American policy is a sign of self-assurance — not timidity — that Americans should welcome.

But style and media management aside, it is too early to conclude whether Obama will press ahead in transforming foreign policy pseudo-events into real events. His continuing preoccupation with the economic crisis clearly limits his ability to launch dramatic diplomatic initiatives. Doing away with the embargo with Cuba or reassessing US policy in the Middle East would require costly fights with powerful forces in Washington. For now, Obama is expending his political capital elsewhere.

There is no doubt that through his personality and life-story, coupled with the manufactured media events, friendly gestures and cool style, Obama has been provided with an opportunity to change America’s global brand name. But the expectations created by the new president’s media image and style of foreign policy need to be matched to specific policy. Such new initiatives in the foreign policy arena will force Obama to use his political capital.

Without a speedy end to the recession, it is more likely that Obama will continue muddling through in the global arena and refrain from enunciating any coherent grand strategy. The danger is that political players at home and abroad will attempt to advance their policy agendas that may conflict with Obama’s. If their efforts ignite a global crisis, that would test more than the new president’s style and public relations skills.

Leon T. Hadar is a research fellow in foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington DC