Ditchley Foundation Annual Lecture XLVI
10 July 2010
Obama, America, and the World: A Promise at Risk
The Honorable Strobe Talbott
The Honorable Strobe Talbott is President of the Brookings Institution. His career spans journalism, government service and academia. He is an expert on U.S. foreign policy, specialising on Europe, Russia, South Asia and nuclear arms control. As Deputy Secretary of State in the Clinton administration, Talbott was deeply involved in both the conduct of U.S. policy abroad and the management of executive branch relations with Congress. In 2009, he was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.
Obama, America and the World: A Promise at Risk
Thanks, George [Robertson]. This may be your first time chairing a Ditchley Lecture, but it’s not the first time that I’ve been under your chairmanship. I had that pleasure on several occasions, about ten years ago, when you were the Secretary-General of NATO and I was at the State Department, and before that when you were Minister of Defence. Despite the weighty issues we were dealing with, one of the many things I enjoyed about working with you was that you brought a sense of fun—that is, enjoying yourself—even when you were tending to the most serious business. That’s probably something that I can only say to you now that you are out of political harm’s way.
As for Jeremy, I’ve known him quite a bit longer; and I’ve admired him in the series of posts that he has held in London, in Washington, in New York, and of course, in particular, during his reign here at Ditchley. Therefore I enthusiastically add my own voice to the chorus of tributes this weekend to Jeremy’s career, which he described last night as being one spent in “diplomacy and para-diplomacy”. Along with all of you, I admire the grace, the discipline, the sense of purpose, and the quality of discourse that he and Anne have brought to these premises. I’m sure I’m one of many people here who have reason to appreciate the Greenstocks’ genius for friendship. They have made this place very family-friendly. In fact, the Ditchley community is very much of a family itself.
Now, as all of you know, early in his professional life, Jeremy was a school master. Once a teacher, always a teacher. From time to time I have been his student—most recently, back in February, when he sent me an e-mail with a homework assignment. I’m here to turn it in and submit to my viva. (The last time I had that experience was 39 years ago, down the road at Oxford).
The title of record – which is in your program and on the invitation – is “Obama and the World.” On some reflection, I’m going to suggest a few amendments to that. For example, the title perhaps might more properly be “Obama, America, and the World.” That is for the following reason. Granted, whoever is the president of the United States, he—or one of these days she—matters a lot, as a force in the world. But so does what’s happening in
At present in the
Hence the listed subtitle of this talk: “A Promise at Risk?”. And as George pointed out, Jeremy and I put a question mark after that phrase back in February. That was partly out of prudence, because just at that point the marathon shouting match over health care reform seemed finally to be coming to an end. Congress was close to passing the most comprehensive social legislation since Lyndon Johnson signed Medicare into law 45 years ago.
But, with the exception of that considerable accomplishment, the subsequent five months have been heavily laden with difficulties for the president and his administration. .The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which we’ll probably come back to in the discussion period, is only one example.
Furthermore, there’s evidence that the troubles that President Obama is having in mastering the politics of his own country are beginning to erode hope and confidence in him elsewhere. I’m hearing that both back at home and when I’m on the road. I spend a lot of time in Washington with colleagues on Embassy Row and with foreign visitors; and I’m on the road a lot myself. This is my second trip to the UK—and my second trip to Oxfordshire—in the last fortnight (such is the lure of Ditchley). On both those trips, whenever the subject, as it often does, turns to what is going on in America and how Obama is doing, I’ve been struck by how often I’ve heard the word “disappointment”. It came up over dinner in the [Ditchley] library last night. I’ve also heard from members of the Obama administration that the growing impression of presidential weakness in Washington threatens to hinder the president’s ability to exert strong influence in other capitals.
So, Jeremy, I think we can drop the question mark after the subtitle and even, perhaps, change it to an exclamation point: Obama’s promise is indeed at risk, at home and abroad.
What I propose to do in these remarks is to discuss the promise, then the risk, and then the prospects for Obama’s being able to manage the risks, overcome the obstacles, and live up to at least some of the many hopes that so many around the world had for him and in many many cases still have for him.
So first, the promise.
Let’s start with what happened on Election Day, Tuesday, November 4, 2008. That event was doubly promising.
There was what it said about
There was also what the election said about the self-described “skinny black man with a funny name” who soundly defeated John McCain, a four-term Senator—a true war hero, with a long record of moderation and considerable experience in foreign and national-security policy.
Let me address the question of race in this election, not least because it relates to the worldview that Barack Obama brought to the presidency and to the diplomatic strategy that he’s pursued over the last year and a half.
Racism is still very much a part of American life. It’s a legacy of the great stain on our national history—slavery. Lots of smart people—many of them liberals and optimists—felt, indeed feared, in their gut, that the color of Barack Hussein Obama’s skin – never mind his name - would, all by itself, be enough to keep him from ever making it to the White House.
The American people—in their enfranchised aggregate—proved that presumption wrong. That was much to their credit.
But Obama helped them do so. He did it in the way that he introduced himself to the voters, and then kept re-introducing himself to them as they paid more and more attention to him during the course of that seemingly endless campaign.
One way that politicians become presidents in
In one respect, Obama’s winning strategy was of a piece with that standard technique of presidential campaigning. His life story was absolutely central to his success.
But the story he told was deliberately, dramatically, and almost defiantly different. In fact, it was all about difference. He played up everything in his origins and his formative years that made his story not a typical American story. Nor was it anything like a typical African-American story. Obama is not the descendant of slaves who crossed the
Obama was, therefore, not so much a product of the American heartland (although he did have
Barack Obama identifies himself as a “citizen of the world”. This is a phrase that comes with a safety warning for American politicians. You may recall that it was also the phrase that Socrates used about himself—and that the powers that be of
President Obama is not the first to call himself a citizen of the world. Jack Kennedy did so, and Ronald Reagan did too. But, Obama is our first president to have proclaimed himself a citizen of the world before he was elected. Moreover, he did it on foreign soil, at the Tiergarten in
One other point about his background that I think is germane to the present and the future. Back in the early 1980s, when Obama was in his 20s, he worked as a community organizer in
That concept lies at the heart of Obama’s theory of the case for American foreign policy. It starts from the premise that there has been a profound transformation in the nature, distribution, and interaction of power in the world.
For the first time in human history, the major states are all at peace with one another. That’s the most important—and often under-recognized—good news of our time. And it gets better. To an unprecedented degree, those major states are collaborating in the search for ways to translate common interests into collective action, and to concert their resources and coordinate their policies in dealing with threats that they cannot manage on their own.
Those threats tend to come from weak or failed states, not strong ones. Or they come from non-state actors—international NGOs of the most malignant sort, Al-Qaeda being the most notorious example but by no means the only one. Or they come from potentially disastrous natural consequences of human activity.
Taken together, these defining characteristics of our age require more emphasis and more effective reliance on diplomacy, partnerships, alliances, coalitions of the willing, and international norms and institutions.
In developing this theme during the campaign, Obama stressed two challenges above all others: the unraveling of the global nuclear nonproliferation regime and climate change. On several occasions he referred to these two threats jointly as the reason why the Earth is “a planet in peril.”
The imperative of holding that peril at bay constitutes the most compelling argument for improving the practices and mechanisms of global governance. Philip Stephens, who is here this afternoon and serves as a trustee of the Ditchley Foundation, had a sobering column on that subject just over a week ago. Philip wrote that global governance is going through a rough patch, adding—based on what he’d heard on a trip to Washington—that President Obama did not find the
Both those assertions are true. But so is the following. It is hard to imagine an American president more committed than the present incumbent in the Oval Office to the need for effective global governance.
Now, you have not heard Barack Obama use that phrase, and I doubt that you will, since—rather like “citizen of the world”—it raises hackles and suspicions among many Americans for whom it has connotations of world government and black helicopters. So rather than stir up that hornets’ nest with the semantics of the idea, he is pushing the idea itself. He talks about “strengthening our common security by investing in our common humanity”. That’s his way of reaffirming America’s role as a designer and builder of global and regional cooperative structures to buttress international peace and prosperity.
I say “reaffirming” because this concept goes back at least to the presidencies of
The unilateralism of George W. Bush was something of an aberration. But in his second term, the junior President Bush tacked back toward multilateralism. For example, on his way out the door of the White House, President Bush convened the first meetings of the G-20 and what has become known as the Major Economies Forum.
President Obama inherited those innovations, and he has tried to build on them, although with some exasperation in
However—and now my remarks shift into a distinctly minor key—when President Obama moved into the Oval Office, he also inherited from the previous occupant the In-Box from Hell.
The war in
And on top of all that, there were the two existential threats that he had highlighted in his campaign and made priorities for his presidency: nuclear proliferation and climate change.
Put all this together, and I think it’s a defensible proposition that none of Obama’s 43 predecessors came into office facing a welter of comparably tough global problems of this multitude, magnitude, urgency, complexity—and consequence.
Yes, his hero Lincoln had a rather full plate waiting for him in the White House in 1861, but it was essentially one plate, taking up the entire table. And while the nation was in mortal peril, the planet did not yet so qualify.
Now, as I’m sure you’ve all noticed, I haven’t even mentioned the No. 1 problem that Obama faced as president-elect: the near-collapse of the international financial system. That crisis probably contributed to the success of Obama’s campaign for the presidency, since he handled it a good deal better than Senator McCain did; but it sure didn’t help his ability to succeed in office. In fact, the aftershocks of the 2008 economic earthquake, with its epicenter on Wall Street, have been the single most important factor that has put the Obama promise—and, indeed, the Obama presidency—at risk.
He saw that danger early on. A couple of days after the election, he met with his economic team for a full briefing on the severity of what had already happened and the calamities that, absent bold action, might lie ahead. After pondering the nightmare scenario that was laid out for him, Obama asked his advisers if perhaps it wasn’t too late to ask for a recount of the election returns.
I mention that anecdote—which Obama recounted publicly at Brookings—because it underscores a point of view that all of us have heard, and some of us have expressed: namely, that Obama’s main problem is one of having created unrealistically high expectations of what he could do and how quickly he could do it.
Well, he didn’t have lofty and rosy expectations. In his Grant Park victory speech and in his inaugural address, he warned us that there were going to be big problems, that there were going to be no easy solutions to those problems—and that he was going to make mistakes in his own efforts to deal with them. Those promises he’s kept (and I’ll come to the mistakes a bit later).
However, mercifully, the worst-case scenario for the world economy that seemed all too plausible from the fall of 2008 into the winter of 2009 has not come to pass. We weren’t just lucky. Our leaders—many leaders, but Obama certainly included—were smart. But he gets virtually no political credit with the American people for his role in pulling the world back from the brink of a second Great Depression, or even for easing the Great Recession. That’s in large measure because the recovery we’re experiencing in the
Now, why do I say “technically in control”? It’s because, in fact, Obama’s party does not control the Congress. That’s for several reasons. There’s a widespread perception in the
As for the Republicans, they sense that they’re in tune with a sour, throw-the-bums-out mood in the country as a whole; that they can attract registered Independents who voted for Obama two years ago; and that they’re well positioned to score big in the midterm elections. That makes them all the less inclined to give the president and his party anything that looks like a victory, on any issue.
The perversity of this situation is that it gives many (though not all) Republicans an incentive to prevent effective governance so that they can blame the president and party in power for its absence and thereby hasten the day when they can take over.
For their part, the Democrats are, by and large, a pretty sorry lot. As a political species, they remind me of the most famous donkey in English literature: Eeyore, whose gloominess tried the patience even of Christopher Robin.
In addition to being dispirited, the Democrats are disorganized. Again, that’s in marked contrast to the Republicans, who are as disciplined as they are exuberant—although not so much in promoting their own solutions to the nation’s problems as in trying to thwart the president from advancing his program.
Aside from these differences between the two parties, there is a peculiarity in our version of the parliamentary system that can cause the near-paralysis of federal government. This is the requirement in the Senate of sixty votes out of a hundred to block a crippling filibuster on virtually any piece of legislation.
When it comes to passing treaties, the concept of a supermajority is written into the Constitution itself, since ratification requires the support of two-thirds of the Senate. The new strategic arms treaty that President Obama has signed with President Medvedev would be the first such pact ever to be ratified under a Democratic president. Yet in part for exactly that reason—that is, to keep Obama from, as they say in Washington, “putting points on the board”—a number of Republican senators are trying to slow the treaty down if not stop it.
Let me now turn to another impediment to legislative action of the kind that is necessary for President Obama—and I would say, for the
To underscore how seriously this matter is taken in
The No. 1 threat to the country, he said, is the national debt, which is on a trajectory to exceed our Gross Domestic Product within 15 years.
It is highly unusual for a senior military official to identify an economic issue as the principal security threat to the nation. When asked to elaborate, Admiral Mullen cited
But Admiral Mullen’s more general point concerns not so much the growing strength of
There are some indications that many Americans are waking up to this danger. A colleague of mine at Brookings, the political scientist Bill Galston, believes that the awareness of the damage that long-term deficits can do is actually having the effect of “nudging
For all kinds of reasons, it would be heartening to see American leaders and citizens alike focus not just on the security of our nation today but on the wellbeing of our children and grandchildren. Let’s hope that happens sooner rather than later, since the principle of trans-generational responsibility needs to be more than a virtuous platitude. It must become an operational part of civic attitudes and political action, and a trump factor in our national debate.
That’s crucial not just for meeting the national challenge of reducing rogue deficits, but for meeting the ultimate global challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
That brings me back to these bucolic surroundings and the excellent discussions that take place here. Climate change was the subject that Jeremy chose for his last Ditchley Conference just a few weeks ago. The title he assigned to the discussion—a bit like the one that he suggested for my remarks today—posed a question: “Can the multilateral system manage climate change?”. But in the course of the two days of discussion, we found ourselves constantly circling back to a prior question: can national systems get their own acts together as a necessary precondition for getting their collective act together?
Unless the United States finally commits itself to federally legislated mandates for greenhouse gas reductions, it is hard to imagine the international effort getting traction of any kind on that issue and certainly in anything like the timeframe necessary to bend those two closely linked curves of greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.
There is a similar fight brewing in the U.S. Congress on the issue of nuclear proliferation, and the stakes are comparably high. I mentioned earlier the current debate over whether the Senate will ratify the so-called New START treaty with the
So we here have two issues that, as Obama has said repeatedly, imperil the planet, and they’re both coming to a head on the calendar of the U.S. Congress between now and the 2012 presidential election. These two issues pose a test not just for the
If nations like ours, and particularly mine, fail, in the months and years immediately ahead, to act with far more prudent foresight than they have done so far, then there is quite simply very little hope for meaningful global governance, which—as I said at the outset—is, essentially, the overarching theme of the Obama foreign policy.
Now, having discussed the risks that the American President faces, I should touch upon the question of his own share of responsibility for the problems that beset his presidency.
I share the view of many who, on the one hand, give him credit for succeeding where six predecessors failed to reform healthcare, but who nonetheless, on the other hand, fault him for how long it took and how debilitating the battle was. He over-delegated the content and management of the bill to Congress, inviting delays and wrangling that seemed all too familiar to a citizenry that wanted to see change.
Then of course there’s
As for the economy, I indicated earlier my view that, overall, Obama deserves higher marks than he is likely to get from voters in November for grappling with the crisis. But, once again, he has made his own job harder by gratuitously demonizing and antagonizing much of the American business and financial community. The animosity towards him in those quarters is not only politically damaging to Obama, given that there are a lot of big donors to his 2008 campaign who now feel betrayed—it could also be economically harmful. Why? Because many business leaders may be reluctant to make the investments necessary to generate new jobs in what they consider to be a hostile political environment.
While we’re on the subject of the extent to which Obama is a source of his own problems, I might comment on the rising perception that what had been two of his most celebrated assets—his temperament and his intellect—are actually liabilities. By temperament, I’m referring to his famous “cool,” the quality reflected in his nickname: “no-drama-Obama.” Some critics now believe that this quality has begun to work against him; that on several issues and in several ways it has hampered his ability to convey to the American people a sense of empathy with their distress. In a nutshell, “cool” can sometimes come across as cold.
As a variant of that critique, there’s a growing view that the downside of Obama’s capacious intellect is that he is sometimes—how to put it?—too intellectual, further distancing himself from the real world and the real people who live there. Jon Meacham, the editor of Newsweek (and who is no slouch intellectually himself), has criticized Obama for coming across—and I’m not making this up—as sounding “more like the president of the Brookings Institution than the president of the United States”.
How’s that for killing two birds with one stone? In addition to saying “ouch!,” I don’t buy the point that Jon is making. I certainly don’t buy the invidious comparison. I think that, generally speaking, it has been a big plus that Obama treats his national—and international—audiences as thoughtful adults who are capable of handling ideas and reality in their complexity.
I’ll cite one example, and it goes back to the subject of how he has handled the race issue. In March 2008, Obama faced an extreme danger to his nomination because of the eruption of controversy over his long association with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who was suddenly all over TV, particularly Fox News, as well as YouTube with fire-and-brimstone sermons on the inequities and indignities that come with being black in America. Obama responded by delivering, in Philadelphia, a textured, probing, balanced, and—yes—cool speech that essentially detoxified the issue both for himself and for many who listened carefully to what he said. And many did. And it worked politically and intellectually.
The confidence that he displays both in his own intelligence and in the intelligence of the American people, may help him succeed—help him, that is, fulfill at least some of the promise that is now at risk.
As we all try to follow—and, insofar as possible, make sense of—the sound and fury of American politics, it’s important to bear in mind that, in addition to being smart, determined, skillful, and persistent, Barack Obama is also adaptive, pragmatic, and—this I would really stress—moderate. He is, by nature, a conciliator—sometimes to the annoyance if not outrage of the left, and often without reciprocity from the right. In both style and substance, he’s anchored at the political center of the country, which is where presidential elections are won. It’s not clear, today at least, that the same is true of his most prominent, vociferous—and, currently, most confident—opponents.
On top of all that, I believe—as is probably pretty obvious now—that Obama’s concept of how the world works, how it’s changing, and how the
I also think he’s shown courage in a key respect. On the two most important issues of our time—proliferation and climate change—he has pushed for legislative progress in the face of daunting opposition. He didn’t have to go for a climate-and-energy bill this year. In fact, he had a lot of advice that he should not do so. But he’s done it for a very simple reason: rather than letting the political calendar dictate lawmaking and policymaking, he is heeding the countdown on how little time we have to get serious about global warming before it will be too late. In other words, if I might refer back to the subtitle of this lecture, Obama has, consciously and necessarily, put the promise of his presidency at risk because he feels he must do so in order to have any chance of ameliorating the far greater risk to our planet, to our ecosphere, and to our progeny.
That’s obviously just one man’s opinion—subject, in about two minutes, to lively debate in the best Ditchley spirit. But I do believe that President Obama’s precepts and goals for American foreign policy may well, over time, through the achievement of concrete progress on the issues at hand, earn him the support that they deserve.
Of course, there is the question of whether he will have that time. It’s partly in that context that all eyes are focused on what will happen in the midterm elections. Another colleague of mine at Brookings, Tom Mann, a true sage on American politics, believes that the chances are better than 50-50 that the Republicans will take control of the House of Representatives. For them to do the same in the Senate would require something like a perfect storm hitting Democratic incumbents seeking re-election. But just such a political hurricane is probably more likely than what the Democrats are praying for, which is a sudden burst of economic sunshine, especially in the form of a surge in employment, over the coming three months.
As for Obama himself, his best strategy is to stay cool and to take some solace from the difficulties of at least two of his predecessors as they approached their own two-year mark, and then what happened subsequently. Like Obama, both Reagan and Clinton had, at this point in their presidencies, approval ratings below 50 percent. In Reagan’s case, his standing was closer to 40 percent, largely because the country was clawing its way out of a recession. Both Reagan and Clinton also saw their parties suffer setbacks in the midterm elections. In
A final thought: whatever fate is in store for the current president of the
At both levels—the national and the international—much will depend on a higher degree of activism from private but publicly engaged citizens. If elected officials are going to exercise the right kind of leadership from on high they will need the right combination of support, pressure, and good ideas from below, from those of us who are outside government but still very much part of the process of governance.
And there is of course no better catalyst for that kind of engagement than Ditchley. May it long prosper—and contribute—as it has in the Greenstock era.