It feels like the bad old days of the Bush administration as the whole world lines up to criticize American leadership — or the lack thereof.
German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble said the US-backed idea to leverage the EU bailout fund so that the same amount of money could bail out bigger debt disasters was “a folly” and that the US should butt out of Europe’s business.
The UK Telegraph newspaper quotes him as saying that “It’s always much easier to give advice to others than to decide for yourself. I am well prepared to give advice to the US government.” In other words, physician heal thyself: get the US budget and trade deficits under control, Mr. President, and we’ll have a nice quiet talk about smart economic policy.
Schauble is not alone in taking on the US. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli PM Netanyahu both took tough stances against President Obama. As the NYT reported on Sunday:
…President Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, returned to a hero’s welcome here [Ramallah] on Sunday…
…Thousands greeted Mr. Abbas at his office headquarters, waving flags, shouting oaths of loyalty and holding aloft his photograph. Mr. Abbas, a withdrawn figure who lacks charisma, is enjoying a wave of popularity for standing up to Washington over the membership application and delivering a tough speech at the United Nations on Friday.
Similarly, despite the new show of harmony over President Obama’s pledge to veto any UN Security Council resolution on Palestinian statehood, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu continues to enjoy the support of his more conservative coalition partners, like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, for resisting American calls for a settlement freeze. To underline the point, Israel announced yesterday that it was approving plans for 1,100 new housing units in the sections of Jerusalem Israel annexed after the 1967 war and ruled out a new settlement freeze on the West Bank. This was not the nicest possible way to thank President Obama for going out on a limb for Israel at the UN.
China has attacked the US decision to provide Taiwan with new weapons and frozen some military contacts in retaliation; in the face of firm Russian and Chinese opposition the UN Security Council has backed away from US-backed proposals for tough new sanctions against Syria in favor of a vague and toothless warning; Turkey continues to roil the eastern Mediterranean with an increasingly vocal anti-Israel stance and threats against Cypriot plans for offshore drilling.
In almost every case, these leaders are winning public support at home by thumbing their noses at the US administration. Schäuble gets credit for standing up to US pressure; Abbas has transformed himself (perhaps briefly) into a Palestinian hero for defying the US. Erdogan, Putin, Wen Jiabao: whether democratically elected or not, they all stand to gain at home by resisting perceived US pressure and “standing up” for the home team against President Obama.
Much of the German press rallied, for example, to Schäuble’s support. Wrote Bild, “Obama’s lecture on the euro crisis … is overbearing, arrogant and absurd … In a nutshell, he is claiming that Europe is to blame for the current financial crisis, which is ‘scaring the world.’ Excuse me?” (H/t, and thanks for the translation, to a valuable site bookmarked on the WRM home computer, Spiegel Online International.)
This is bitterly frustrating and perhaps a bit embarrassing for the world’s cat-herder-in-chief. The “new look” Obama foreign policy doesn’t seem to be winning the US all that much more cooperation abroad than the “old look” policy under President George W. Bush. Republicans may be tempted to launch an attack on the White House for losing allies and failing to lead the world; there might be some poetic justice in this considering Obama’s harsh rhetoric about his predecessor, but it would also be hollow political opportunism.
While administration missteps, most notably on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, have contributed to the current atmosphere, there is nothing new about some of these problems. It has been decades since Europeans welcomed US advice about their economic problems. German chancellors since Konrad Adenauer have regularly roasted the US for what they see as our national addiction to budget deficits and fecklessly loose monetary policy. China has never liked our support for Taiwan, and the current brouhaha is mild by historical standards and looks more pro-forma than in-depth. A newly democratic and assertive Turkey is running through the eastern Mediterranean like a bull in a china shop, but this has less to do with anything President Obama has done than with long term trends in Turkey itself.
Since the end of the Cold War, world politics and the global economy have been gradually moving away from the (relative) stability that characterized the 1945-1990 era. That post World War Two era was unusual by the standards of modern history. Financial crashes and depressions were a regular feature of life from the Dutch Tulip Bubble of the seventeenth century right through the Great Depression. International politics were turbulent and tumultuous as well, with countries switching alliances and stabbing one another in the back with great gusto and regularity.
Hendrik Gerritsz Pot’s allegory of the Dutch tulip mania. The goddess of flowers is riding along with three drinking and money weighing men and two women on a car. Weavers from Haarlem have thrown away their equipment and are following the car. The destiny of the car is shown in the background. (Wikimedia)
The exhaustion of Europe, China and Japan after World War Two, and the bipolar rivalry between the nuclear superpowers, froze world politics through the end of the Cold War. The macroeconomic tools and tightly regulated national banking systems developed during and after World War Two made for greater economic stability until the world economy gradually outgrew the post-war system and financial and trade globalization created a new and much more volatile economic system that is still poorly understood.
These days every government on earth, democratically elected or not, faces huge political pressure. Newly empowered public opinion is more demanding than ever, but the economic and political environment of every country is more volatile than ever. Under those circumstances, politicians are looking to blame foreign forces for unpleasant conditions while appealing to populist sentiments.
That leaders around the world find President Obama and the country he leads such a useful target for insults and such a useful scapegoat when things go wrong is, in a perverse — and from a US point of view, somewhat unpleasant — way, a form of flattery. The United States is being so widely attacked because it matters so much. Germany does not attack Indian leaders who criticize its economic policies; Netanyahu does not spend a lot of time thinking up new ways to demonstrate his independence from Brazil.
American foreign policy faces many challenges around the world today, but irrelevance is not one of them. It is more fun to be loved than to be criticized, and more satisfying to be silently obeyed than publicly defied, but President Obama remains the world’s cat-herder-in-chief, and the US remains the most important international actor in a fractious world.
The real challenge the United States faces is to develop a new kind of strategy for a more fluid and tumultuous world. This was true during the Bush administration and it is true today. Many Democrats wasted precious time and intellectual energy between 2001 and 2008 blaming Bush for all the world’s ills rather than developing a realistic new strategy for a changing world; Republicans risk making the same mistake today, throwing stones at the White House rather than carefully thinking through the state of the world.
Foreign policy is never easy; it is going to be harder than ever to get it right in the next few years. Interesting times — the question is, can we live up to them?