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In Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World, World Policy Institute Senior Fellow Ian Bremmer illustrates a historic shift in the international system and the world economy—and an unprecedented moment of global uncertainty.
By David A. Andelman
Since it’s just 2 ½ weeks until the American Presidential elections, I thought it might be useful to begin by talking about the different strategic visions of the two candidates—Mitt Romney and Barack Obama—who are standing for that office, which is often considered the most powerful, certainly the most challenging, in the world. Their visions—how their economic and political goals might impact Europe and global preparedness—are of vital importance to everyone in this room and far beyond these ancient walls. But above all, we should look at the two different styles of president and the type of government, the type of America, they represent.
Four years ago, when Barack Obama was elected to his first term as President, the world went wild with joy. In our Winter issue of World Policy Journal in 2008, with the cover theme “Dear Mr. President,” we used a photo of crowds pouring into the Champs-Elysées, waving American flags. Some of those celebrating had even draped themselves in these flags. And we had writers from every continent suggesting to the new President just what he should do to change their region for the better—not to mention our image as Americans and the world’s perception of us as well. We were all filled with hope and excitement.
Here was an individual, it seemed, with a new vision of the world and America’s role in it. But over the past four years, has this come to pass?
I am by training, an historian—by profession, a journalist and commentator. But in both cases an observer, one who I hope has learned from long experience that those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it. There are, it seems to me, two distinct styles of government that have marked American presidents down through history. And each is distinguished by two sets of attributes. If you consider the first set, there is on the one hand the President whose style is academic, detached or on the other hand a President who is hands-on, personal. The other set of attributes pertains more to his approach to the world—is he merely reactive or does he have a clear world view, a weltanschauung. In other words, does he simply react to crises, ping-ponging like a game of table tennis, ricocheting from one crisis to another, or on the other hand, does he operate with a clear-eyed sense of the kind of world he’ll leave at the end of his four or eight years in the White House.
In the case of Mitt Romney, as merely a candidate, with no track record to measure him against, we have only his pronouncements and his style to go by. Certainly, on the scale of academic and detached at one end, hands-on and personal at the other, Romney would appear to be closer to the academic/detached end of the spectrum. His background is business where numbers and performance count far more than any feel-good assessments. We’ve had Presidents like that, and some have worked out quite nicely, others have not. On the question of reactivity versus weltanschauung, the verdict is still very much out. Romney has not, to date, provided very much of a worldview, but perhaps that might be trumped, in the current global atmosphere of crisis upon crisis, by a more analytical perspective.
In the case of President Obama, how has this all worked out? After all, we’ve now had four years of a very visible presidency to assess where he stands when measured against these criteria we’ve established. You may recall that one of the new President’s first visits was to Egypt where on June 4, 2009, in a Cairo still ruled by Hosni Mubarak, he pledged “A New Beginning” in a major address to the Arab world from the grand Reception Hall at Cairo University. The speech was designed to honor a promise Obama had made during his presidential campaign to give a major address to Muslims from an Islamic capital during his first few months as president. In other words, to present a very clear sense that he understands the needs, wants and desires of the Arab world and demonstrates his intention to work through those systematically—whether by political or military means—during his term in office.
In preparing for this speech, Obama demonstrated a clear understanding of the history of the Middle East—the role colonialism had played in the hostility that had developed between Islam and the West, hostilities that he hoped to bring to an end or at least detour around. Any such condominium, he continued, should be rooted in the common elements shared by both regions—fundamental beliefs in God and family. Clearly powerful foundations for building a weltanschauung. And indeed the speech, as he delivered it, seemed to lay the foundations for just such an approach—above all his call for peace between Israel and Palestine, whose people had divided the Holy Land for a millennium.
There was a host of such new beginnings for the new President. In our relationship with Russia, it was a “Reset”—a new beginning in relations with America’s principal adversary for three generations during the Cold War.
So how did that all work out? Quite simply, none of it really happened. In the case of the Middle East, it took a fruit peddler in Tunisia to touch off a tinderbox called the Arab Spring, whose denouement we are still awaiting, generally with fear and trepidation. No longer an “opportunity,” how this plays out is very much up in the air. Israelis and Palestinians are as much at odds as they have ever been.
As for Russia—it continues to plant a stake through the heart of virtually every major American, or western, initiative in the form of a string of vetoes in the UN Security Council.
So what went wrong?
The problem was pretty clear from the aftermath of the New Beginning speech in Cairo. Obama jetted out of Egypt immediately following his address, and there was little or no follow-up. He failed to invest his own personal stake in a new beginning. He began with what seemed to be very perceptive concept of the world and how he would work toward a new beginning and a new American role in it. But he wound up by simply being, for the most part, reactive. What was missing was the passion and the personal commitment to translate his visionary words into reality—bringing the leaders involved to the presidential retreat at Camp David and exerting the power and the majesty of the American presidency to produce a positive, concrete outcome. Also missing was any concrete sense of where each of these elements belongs—in short a weltanschauung.
For an American military or foreign policy initiative to work, far more than mere rhetoric is needed. The President needs to be invested personally in its outcome—pledge his honor and that of his nation to the process. There must be a sense from all parties that if the desired outcome is not achieved, there will be consequences—serious consequences—just as good things will flow from a successful conclusion. Instead, Obama basically outsourced his foreign policy to Hillary Clinton, his onetime challenger for the presidency, then his own Secretary of State. Hillary in turn outsourced her principal headaches to a phalanx of proconsuls—George Mitchell for Israel and Palestine, Dennis Ross for Iran and of course the late great Richard Holbrooke for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now I was a huge fan of Richard, back thirty years when we first met in New York following his stint in Vietnam and while he was awaiting his next call to public service. But he repeatedly expressed enormous frustration of the pace of change, the investment of Obama in the process of bringing peace to Afghanistan, except where it concerned the level of military deployments—certainly one key priority of America’s commander-in-chief, but hardly a broad foundation to construct a meaningful, peaceful solution in a region that has been engaged in warfare for centuries, and has battled two superpowers for a generation or more. Above all, the mistake here was a fatal one—by granting too much autonomy over critical foreign policy priorities, he largely removed his ability to implement a world view, in the end making his choices too simple, too facile and above all too reactive.
Two weeks ago, I had lunch with a senior member of the committee that selects the Nobel Peace Prize. We talked about many things, but we spent a lot of time discussing this question of presidential vision. So I asked him whether he voted to award Barack Obama the Nobel Peace prize in 2009, barely nine months after he assumed office, for his vision or for his accomplishments? I’ll tell you his response in a moment.
But first, a bit of history. This prize had previously been bestowed on just three sitting American presidents out of 120 recipients since 1901. Now mind you, Bill Clinton never received it, nor did Richard Nixon, though Henry Kissinger did. Mikhail Gorbachev received the prize, but not Ronald Regan who many credit with really forcing the challenges to the Soviet Union that led to Gorbachev’s heroic and historic decision to bring an end to the system of communist dictatorship. Martin Luther King was a recipient, but not Lyndon Johnson whose brilliant manipulation of the American political system actually enabled the historic civil rights reforms that Dr. King agitated for. US Secretary of State Cordell Hull was awarded the prize in 1945 for his role in the establishment of the United Nations, but not his President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Frank Kellogg won the prize in 1929, for his role in negotiating the Kellogg-Briand Pact that renounced war as an instrument of national policy, but there was not even a nod to his President, Calvin Coolidge. Parenthetically, the other half of this pact, Aristide Briand, had already been awarded the prize, together with Germanys’ Gustav Stresemann in 1926 for a different agreement—the Locarno Accord. Earlier, another U.S. Secretary of State, Elihu Root, won the prize in 1912, six years after the President under whom he served, Teddy Roosevelt, who was awarded the prize in 1906 for his personal efforts as mediator between Russia and Japan that brought an end to the Russo-Japanese war. So who was the greater visionary in each of these cases? The ministers, or secretaries, who won the prizes, or the presidents who sent them on their missions and would ultimately bear the consequences.
Now I can tell you that Woodrow Wilson, who won the prize in 1919, was certainly a visionary—too much so, as I explain in my last book, A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today. In Paris, negotiating the Versailles Peace Treaty, he came up against other visionaries—individuals also with their own weltanschauung, that differed sharply from his own. France’s Georges Clemenceau, Britain’s David Lloyd George, each sought a world where his nation would play a central role, dominating vast regions and assuring that their prime enemy, Germany, would never again take its seat among the world’s leading empires. Well, you can see how well that worked out today. As for Wilson, the prizewinner, he had none of that critical gift of implementation. So he bartered away his vision and condemned the League of Nations to a marginal role in securing the future peace of Europe, which finally evaporated in the fog of war—the vengeance and venality that led eventually to World War II.
So last month, when I asked my luncheon guest from the Nobel Peace Prize committee what President Obama had done to merit that award just nine months into his presidency, he replied that it was more a sense of the spirit of the world that he had altered than any constructive action. Passive, not active. So when I suggested that it was more the fact that he had done nothing to imperil the cause of peace—in short, that he had done no harm—my guest smiled and, I think somewhat sheepishly, nodded his agreement.
Now that’s one way of approaching things. If you look at the world as simply a place to do no harm, you are unlikely to cause death or destruction—at least not actively. But passivity can itself be as dangerous, even deadly, as activism—the non-dispatch of planes or battalions can lead to more death, destruction and mayhem than the active use of force, or even indeed its directly implied use.
Is a passive president more likely to lead to peaceful conclusions of international crises—letting the world take its own course however that may happen?
In the past year, in fact, we can see a first-hand laboratory of how these two approaches have worked out. In Libya, the West plunged right in virtually from the get-go, taking out Qaddafi’s air defense system, then establishing and maintaining a no-fly zone, finally using a flock of cruise missiles to interdict heavy armor at a host of critical junctures. In Syria the contrary approach has prevailed. Hands-off. Laissez-faire, non-intervention in any real operational sense. I don’t need to tell you all how that worked. In the former case, a democratically elected government has come to power in Libya. In Syria, it’s been a bloodbath, with the still looming threat of sucking neighboring nations—Turkey and Iran in particular—into the maelstrom.
The day before my lunch with the member of the Nobel Peace Prize committee, he had just had dinner with Henry Kissinger, who was awarded the prize in 1973 with North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho whose secret talks in Paris led to a cease-fire agreement and eventually to an end to the Vietnam War. Now Kissinger, for all his flaws—and there are many, not the least of which is a not inconsiderable dose of hubris—may have been the last American leader with a very clear and present weltanschauung. I first came to appreciate that when I studied under him at Harvard in the mid-1960s. It was a worldview that he could, and did on many occasions, articulate and seek to implement. Of course, he worked for a president who was prepared to accept such a vision. There have been others in his position with similar visions—Zbigniew Brzezinski, for one, who worked for Jimmy Carter. But Brzezinski was burdened, alas, with a President who might have had such a vision, and indeed since leaving the White House seems to have been seeking to implement it wherever possible, but who like so many before and after him, became mired in the minutiae that can consume the occupant of the Oval Office.
I contend that what we’ve been discussing pertains to a host of nations, and their leaders, beyond simply the United States. In the course of my career, I’ve traveled through and reported from some 72 countries. I’ve met or interviewed world leaders from Leonid Brezhnev to Muammar Qaddafi to Francois Mitterrand, and I can tell you that they too divide along similar lines. Certainly few nations, few presidents, or dictators, are able to influence the course of history in quite the way an America President, or for that matter a Soviet leader during the Cold War has been capable of doing. But many can, and do, influence the course of their nation, even their region in ways that reveal whether they are again, ricocheting from crisis to crisis or attempting to position their nation, their people for a future that is better than—or least different from—the past, or even the present.
Indeed, in our current issue of World Policy Journal, with the cover theme of “Democracy,” the subject of our featured Conversation is United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. In the course of our discussion, I asked him whether he ever considered that the world body he leads might be more effective if it had some sort of standing military force, that could be brought to bear more quickly, more immediately than the peacekeeping system now in force that requires a new set of officers and soldiers to be assembled from volunteer nations for each international crisis? He replied quickly and adamantly that the United Nations was not in the business of military intervention, but rather in helping peace to be negotiated, then assured. Now in my previous book, The Fourth World War, myself and my co-author, the late great spymaster Alexandre de Marenches, who headed France’s intelligence service for twelve years under four French presidents, suggested that just such a standing force might be the one institution that could spell the difference between peace and global or regional chaos in many situations. It should not, would not, be called into action unless a domestic situation threatened to spill beyond its borders or the actions within these borders transcended some global standard of civilized human behavior. Clearly the crisis in Libya, as well as the civil war in Syria, would meet both of these conditions. In the first case, other regional powers, banded together in the Arab League, sought outside intervention, giving western military forces diplomatic cover that the UN Security Council was unable or unwilling to provide—paralyzed, as it so often is, by the veto of one or more of its permanent members. The Arab League, for its own reasons, has been unable or unwilling to provide the same cover for any action against Syria. Not to mention the fact that with its powerful neighbor, Iran, poised on the brink of becoming a nuclear power, and hovering very much in the wings, there has been no “invitation” for the west or any other nation, even neighboring Turkey, to intervene. Such intervention might have prevented, or at least cut short, bloodshed that has already far surpassed even the charnel house of Muammar Qaddafi.
So how does, or how should, the world react in the future? Since I was trained as an historian, I sometimes think it’s worth looking at how we reacted in the past. And since we began today talking about different styles of American presidents, how might they in turn react to future crises.
The world still needs America’s steady hand. But it needs to be a steady, reliable and, yes, predictable hand. One that is guided by principles for all to see and understand and, hopefully, respect for the wisdom by which they are applied. Obama has the equipment to do that; whether he has the will is another question. Romney, as a candidate, expresses the will to do this, but there is equally the question of how quipped he is to carry this out. Any American president over the next four years must remain uniformly engaged, not passively or standoffishly, but engaged in a fashion that allows nations ultimately the ability to choose their own road for their own people without encumbrances. For in the end, that’s what counts. It’s where The Treaty of Versailles went so badly off the road. Its drafters, and yes I include Nobel Peace Prize winner Woodrow Wilson among them, failed to understand the needs, the wants and desires of the people whose borders they were carving up and reassembling. How else to explain Serbs, Croats and Slovenes—Christians, Orthodox and Muslims—all shoved together in one boiling stewpot named Yugoslavia that would eventually all come apart most violently? Or for that matter, Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds in an artificially crafted Iraq; Czechs and Slovaks in a single country until their remarkable good fortune to be able to split apart into their own nations. I could go on. But I’ll spare you.
This is, or should be, the ultimate goal of any President, or for that matter any national leader of any distinction—give nations the opportunity to choose freely a government, and their leaders, that are in keeping with their own very particular traditions, their aspirations, their heritage.
So to conclude, let’s return for a moment to my opening thoughts. Obama versus Romney. What sort of a world might each work toward? I suspect we may have even more profound insight into that after the next Presidential debate, which takes place this coming Monday and will focus entirely on foreign policy. So far, each has tried to outdo the other on defending America’s strong position in the world—a bit frightening if that means support of an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, for instance, or a more rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan to preserve US military resources for other crises, real or imagined.
In terms of European security, frankly the most critical issue right now is certainly economic. A strong American economy can only be a positive if it serves to grow a market for European products, creating or protecting European jobs. At the same time a strong European economy means a continent that can serve as a market for goods from Asia, especially China or India, where weakness can only mean greater unrest and instability. A strengthened European financial system also would be capable of supporting sufficient military resources to stand as a true partner with the United States in any future police action or broader military commitment abroad.
Hopefully, whoever arrives in the White House, and quite possibly faced with a divided Congress from the opposing party, he will find a way to break the logjam that has all but paralyzed Washington for the last two years. This is the single most vital skill that the president—a second-term Obama or a first-term Romney—can bring to the next four years that one of them will spend in the White House. The world can ill afford the continuation, the uncertainty and chaos that grow from a leadership incapable of taking any real initiative.
Eleven of the 19 presidents who held office in the 20th and 21st centuries spent some or all of their terms battling Congress controlled in whole or in part by the opposition party—un cohabitation, as you call it here, and that I personally witnessed François Mitterrand navigate quite successfully, if a trifle unhappily. Woodrow Wilson brought home the Treaty of Versailles to a Republican-controlled Congress. All twelve years served by Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush had a Congress controlled in one or both houses by Democrats. For six of his eight years as President, Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, and the hero general of the Second World War, dealt with a Democratic Congress. Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford never had a Republican Congress in their eight years in office, while Bill Clinton had a Democratic Congress for only two of his eight years. And four of George Bush’s eight years found him with Democrats in control of our legislature. Yet each of them managed monumental accomplishments—good and bad, of course. Today, our next President must find a way to do the same—more effectively, we all hope, than President Obama in his first term.
You know, I have a theory of how American presidents, really any freely elected heads of state, operate—how the levers of power work. A leader comes into office on the wings of euphoria, with a powerful mandate from at least half the electorate. It’s like a large oil drum filled with good will. And throughout his presidency, he must dip into that barrel and ladle out a bit of that goodwill for any new and exciting initiative. How wisely he manages his trips to the barrel, how he spends that goodwill is perhaps the truest measure of the skill, and the value that president brings to his office. He can use these resources to implement a real weltanschauung, or he can dip in from time to time for small spoonfuls to handle individual challenges, as Obama has done. But once that barrel is empty, there is no replenishing it—at least until the next time he stands for office. President Obama’s barrel is nearly empty. He is now faced with the challenge of refilling it for his own use, or passing it along to his successor.
Frankly, it’s hard to say whether either candidate is operating from the perspective of a real weltanschauung. In terms of personnel to execute any such program, many of the key players in the first Obama administration have indicated their intentions to exit after a brief transition period. So Hillary Clinton will be gone, likewise Tim Geithner, America’s Treasury Secretary. And other supporting players will swiftly follow them out the door. Just a couple of weeks ago, riding a bus in Manhattan, I ran into one of Hillary’s top international financial aides who told me he’d be heading back to Wall Street in a couple of months.
The sad truth is that both presidential candidates have been running rather stealth campaigns so far—few concrete commitments to major initiatives, certainly no real hint as to whom they might turn to carry forth whatever vision might emerge.
Perhaps the best we can hope is what I told my luncheon companion from the Nobel Peace Prize committee. The next President can make his mark, at least initially, by doing no harm. With no more elections before him, with the constitutional mandate that ends his presidency at the conclusion of his second term, all that remains for Obama is simply his legacy, and the mark he would make on history. For Romney, there is the prospect of eight years to shape the world in his image.
David A. Andelman is Editor of World Policy Journal.