You have to have a lot of sympathy for President Obama. The hand he was dealt was a bad one. He has had to deal with some of history’s worst natural disasters, ruinous wars and conflicts, massive acts of violence and terrorism, as well as calamitous economic crises. His European trip embodies the enormity of the challenges he faces and miserable tools he has been given to meet them. It also showed him again as one of America’s most articulate, well briefed, stirring, and careful leaders of the last two decades.
THE IRISH VISIT
The “best enjoyable” part of the President’s trip must have been the visit to his family’s ancestral home in Ballymoney. The pints of Guinness, slaps on the back, Irish jokes and talks with government leaders gave him some measure of Irish hospitality and devilish humor. Even a President must have some fun!
LONDON VISIT AND DEFINING THE US-EUROPE RELATIONSHIP
Obama quashed most of British criticism that he was not interested in Europe and cooperating with Europe. The special relationship became also the “indispensable relationship.” Not mentioned was the new government’s leaders churlish statements that their relationship with the US would be “solid but not slavish.” He stayed in Buckingham Palace and there was a formal dinner in London with the Queen which must have been more fun than his meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron, who is conducting a “slash and burn” economic strategy against his own people. Cameron must have pressed Obama to do more in Libya, as did President Sarkozy. Obama seems to have made clear that he expected NATO to remain in the lead.
Obama’s speech to a joint session of Parliament was soaring. It eloquently highlighted the common values shared by our two countries and by most of Europe.
The speech’s most important point, but overlooked by most of the media, was to brush aside those who say the days of the West are over, and that we should get out of the way for the rise of China and others. Or worse, those who are “new century isolationists” here in America who want to decimate the international affairs budget. He clearly indicated that the leadership of America, Britain, and the other members of the EU and the G-8 and beyond were still indispensable for guiding us through the crises of the day and well into the future.
This point needed to be made as there has been a lot of nonsense about the “decline of the West.” The reality is that if you combine the OECD countries, which I need to add includes Japan, you get more than half of he world’s GDP. With just North America and the EU you get not only about half of the world’s effective economy, but even more than that, the most advanced scientific and technological base. You also get countries including the US and NATO allies and South Korea and Japan that account for the overwhelming bulk of global military capability.
This is not to deny the key growth in the BRICs and other countries in Asia, but the reality, when you look up close, is that each of them has formidable economic and demographic obstacles within their societies and vast regions of deep poverty and serious problems of governance. China while growing fast, for example, is only about 5% of global GDP. Nor does it seem that any of the BRICs are willing to stand up to the plate and assume the cost of significant global responsibility in the strategic or economic spheres…..except, in some cases, only playing a negative or rhetorical role.
Further, Obama was also saying that America should not go it alone to cure the world’s ills. This was a second most important point that was relevant and would be repeated in his G-8 meetings and especially in discussions on contributions to building democratic societies after the Arab Spring. The reality is that all the nations of the “West” are undergoing severe economic difficulties, with the result that most are trying to cut back on government resources and paying out money abroad is not, unfortunately, very popular. Thus the G-8 leaders generally did not pledge specific numbers for donations. But they have passed the ball to international institutions like the IMF or specified their aid in debt reductions and a figure of $20 billion was suggested for total assistance.
The economic dislocation also has bred a nasty kind of self-interested nationalism which is exemplified by Germany which is doing better than most, but is also the harshest in not wanting to help its poorer EURO zone neighbors like Greece, Spain, and Ireland. Also the right wing, head in the sand Republicans in Congress are sharpening their focus to drastically cut our international affairs budget just when we need to do more internationally rather than less.
Obama is also engaging the key international organizations in ways that the old Bush II and the neocons would never do, namely in calling upon their experience and resources to take lead rolls in dealing with key challenges which are best addressed by the full capabilities of the international community. Thus the IMF, regional banks, World Bank and other institutions are being asked to lead in support of the hopefully emerging Arab democracies.
G-8 MEETING DEAUVILLE:
Finally, the G-8 Summit focused on strategic issues in ways that recent ones have not. In Deauville, Obama met with President Medvedev where they tried to reach some kind of accommodation on the vexing problem of missile defense in Central Europe. The problem was not solved, but Medvedev said it was not likely to be solved until 2020 – the time when the whole system is to be in place.
The G-8 meeting focused in large part on the Libya issue and related upheavals both economically and strategically. This is a kind of overture to broaden the discussion, to look at “holistic” approaches rather through just a narrow military perspective. Here the aim was shared responsibility.
VISIT TO POLAND AND MEETING WITH CENTRAL AND EASTERN EUROPEAN NATIONS
Contrary to some reports, Obama’s Warsaw visit had a lot more substance than some had suggested. It also was an important symbolic act both in his visit to the Warsaw Ghetto where he visited with Jews still living in Poland and reaffirmed his commitment to Israel. In the same way, he reassured the Poles and other Eastern Europeans that his outreach to Russia would not be at their expense. Once again his visit emphasized continued American interest in the region.
Thus, in his own way, Obama is trying to shape a new global “architecture” which is very different from that of George Bush, even as some conservative pundits are saying he is following Bush’s path.
While he believes America must lead, he is seeking a wide global consensus for action, drawing in allies where military action is needed to take the lead rather than leading and dragging others along. He is taking seriously “burden sharing” in a world of scarce resources, and he is asking others to take a wider perspective. He is calling upon world institutions to do better and take on tougher tasks where possible. Only time will tell if he will, through force of his ideas and examples, get the wider world to follow.
By Harry C. Blaney III.