International expectations went through the roof one year ago today with the election of Barack Obama. The United Stated had elected the man whom many across the globe expected to be the anti-Bush. As controversial abroad as President Bush’s stance on the long war against terrorism had been, just as euphoric was the reaction to the election of the Democratic presidential nominee. The jubilation reflected a belief that as president, Obama would think less like an American and more like the rest of the world – however that was defined.
During the presidential campaign, candidate Obama had done much to encourage this belief. In his July speech in front of the Victory column in Berlin, Obama set the theme for many of his later foreign policy speeches, the apology for American actions. “I know my country has not perfected itself. At times, we’ve struggled to keep the promise of liberty and equality for all of our people. We’ve made our share of mistakes, and there are times when our actions around the world have not lives up to its best intentions.” The German audience and the world lapped it up.
As for public diplomacy, which had been one of the problem areas of the Bush administration, Mr. Obama and his chosen Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasized a new era of communication with audiences world wide. Through the use of the new media, Internet and cell phone technology, the incoming Obama administration’s message was pushed aggressively to young audiences. Marketing the personal appeal of the president – particularly to audiences in the Muslim world and in Africa – promised to be a major focus.
It soon became clear, however, that being popular, even winning toe Nobel Peace Prize and displaying an apologetic attitude about the United States is far from enough to conduct effective foreign policy. In fact, setting the bar of expectations so high has created a problem in itself.
Today, looking back over the president’s anniversary, even media that have been solidly on the side of the Obama administration have started to notice. On the front page of The Washington Post, glowing reviews of Obama’s vision of a world of “shared interests,” is tempered by the dawning reality that “on the farthest-reaching U.S. foreign policy challenges, he is struggling to translate his own popularity into American influence, even with allies that have celebrated his break with the Bush administration’s emphasis on military strength, unilateral action and personal chemistry.”
On critically important challenges like Iran and Afghanistan, the president has failed to persuade even friendly governments to support American positions, and on the major real multilateral issues of the day, like the Doha trade round, the administration has failed to show desperately needed leadership. On climate change, an issue of almost religious significance to Europeans, President Obama has not shown the inclination to engage that Europeans had hoped for in the run-up to the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in December, relegating the issue at best to a 3rd tier in his order of priorities.
Frustration with the lack of European international support was recently expressed in surprisingly direct terms by Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Philip Gordon, speaking to a startled audience in Brussels in early October. In response to a question from the audience, Mr. Gordon told the assembled that the Obama administration will be cherry picking European allies if the EU as a whole cannot be counted on. “We want to see a strong and united Europe, speaking with one voice. In the best of all possible worlds, that one voice will be saying what we want to hear….If it is not saying what we want to hear, then we would rather that voice was less united. For the foreseeable future we will have to have relations with the EU and with nations. You go to the place that can deliver… [For example] on trade, we deal with the EU, as the EU is the decider.” Later, he was asked if he felt Europe needed to think more strategically. Absolutely, he replied: “We want to see Europe thinking more strategically, because we think if they do think more strategically, they’ll think more like Americans.” Had this come from a Bush administration official it would have been headline news in all the major U.S. papers.
In the Middle East, the president’s approach has not been reaping fruit either. Whereas Mr. Obama’s initial outreach to Arab audiences through his first major media appearance on al-Hurra television and his Arab outreach speech in Cairo won him huge plaudits, audiences in the Middle East are still waiting for the policy follow up and registering some impatience. Both Palestinians and Isrealis are expecting U.S. arm twisting to begin on the issue of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the Palestinian with impatience, the government of Israel with concern over relations with its old ally the United States.
Meanwhile, human rights advocates and democracy activists are wondering what U.S. foreign policy will add up to the Obama era. Values and ideals that have been at the heart of American foreign policy for most of the past century are being muted by the administration as it pursues shared interests with China, Iran, Cuba, Russia and anyone else who will sit down and talk.. According to Anne Marie Slaughter, undersecretary of state for policy planning speaking to a Washington audience last week, the Obama administration believes that you can address global challenges without at least initially raising issues of governance and legitimacy among foreign governments. This amounts to a values neutral foreign policy that makes the content of public diplomacy difficult to articulate.
As far as institutional initiatives on public diplomacy that could facilitate the transmission of the U.S. governments message to foreign publics – as well as foreign leaders – the Obama administration is still working on them through the recently begun Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. Even the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the body that overseas Voice of America and the other U.S. international broadcasting services, is in a holding pattern with the terms of all nine board members expired and none yet nominated by the White House to fill the posts. The inaction is typical in many ways of the Obama administration’s failure to engage the world substantively – despite all the president’s appealing imagery, symbols and oratory.