Since September 11th, America’s international reputation has seen a downward spin from the most respected superpower status it held from World War II onwards. From the economic wealth and innovation that saw the lives of its citizens ranking supreme to its military prowess and involvement in international security affairs, America was the standard by which most other nations set their principles. However, the rise of China has spearheaded a rapidly developing group of countries to challenge the US in economic terms. Even more so, terrorism and non-state actors have presented America with security and foreign-policy challenges that test the very principles of the nation.
Barack Obama assumed the role of American president in one of the most hostile periods of US history, taking over from President Bush when the world and the Middle East in particular, presented America with a quagmire-ish foreign-policy landscape to navigate. The great question regarding Barack Obama’s presidency was whether he would be able to rebuild America’s reputation abroad and keep it safe.
The presidency of George Bush left impressions upon the world of the U.S. as a belligerent empire, solely focused upon its self-interest and betraying its global watchdog status. The everyday peoples from Britain to Japan were turning against the superpower, with none more so than the Arabic nations of the Middle East. During the Bush years, the Pew Research Center noted that British favourability of the US dropped from 83% to 53%, between 2000 and 2008, and from 25% to 19% in the Arabic Kingdom of Jordan, in which U.S. favourability even ranked in the single digits in the early years of the Iraq war. Overall, America’s likeability decreased dramatically in the international community. This political topography was a far cry from the American exceptionalism that fuelled the rhetoric of a young Senator Obama, who would employ his presidential primary speeches to construct narratives of how America would once again “lead by deed and example” and be “a beacon of freedom and justice for the world”. With the exodus of the Bush administration, the opportunity arose for Obama to attempt to rebuild America’s reputation on the international stage.
Use all your well-learned Politesse
Shortly into Obama’s assumption of the American presidency, he addressed the Arabic world from Cairo with a speech entitled ‘A New Beginning’. The speech offered the Obama Administration an opportunity to begin rebuilding distressed U.S.-Arab relations, which were damaged during the ‘good versus evil’ rhetoric of the Bush presidency. Obama presented the world with an American president who seemed to be more aware of what Edward Said referred to as the “complex mosaic of traditions, religions, cultures, ethnicities and histories that make up the Arab world”, enlightenment which Said deemed lost to the US strategic planners of his lifetime.
As such, ‘A New Beginning’ opened with an introduction built upon the positive impacts of Islam and was completely focused upon the Muslim faith with no allusions to America or its place in the world, a tactic in stark contrast to the international policy speeches of Bush regarding the region. Koran recitation replaced bible thumping. Obama was aware of the fact that due to its de facto power, America would automatically provoke fear and resentment from others. A new way to make America strong was to deliberately downplay the U.S.’s dominance, a theory put forward by the once Neo-Conservative Fukayama. References were made to Islam’s “remarkable institutions”, “the hospitality of the people” and “centuries of coexistence and cooperation”. The immediate need to place America as a city upon a shining hill was not present as Obama assured his audience and the world that “America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition”. There was no need for either tradition to fear the other. There was a difference between tackling extremism and fighting a religion. To the observant listener, Obama was proving himself more aware of the Arab mosaic than his predecessors. And as such, Obama’s ratings took a subsequent bump in the Middle East and elsewhere.
However, fast-track through to the beginning of Obama’s second term and his promising start has not materialised into progressive US-Arab relations. Obama has failed to produce a foreign-policy strategy that follows the rhetoric of his Cairo speech. The damage of his drone policy has far outweighed the value of his words and Arabic opinions of Obama have plummeted since his ‘New Beginnings’ speech. The intricacy of foreign-policy relationships has fast become a reality and the election time quip of competitor-turned-ally Hillary Clinton that “you campaign in poetry, you govern in prose” is ringing in the ears of an administration that has failed to follow through on its early rhetoric. The US has failed to win the hearts and minds of a post-Arab Spring Middle East and in a 2011 poll, six Middle Eastern countries rated Obama’s approval at 10% or less, according to the Arab American Institute. Their biggest perceived opposition to peace and stability within the region was US intervention, perhaps leading to the sheepish foreign-policy manoeuvres America continued to make in regard to the Syrian civil war. As the whispers of chemical weapon use become shouts and the US continues to fail in controlling Israeli spin doctors, America’s reluctance to get stung once more may in fact be a blessing in disguise for the superpower. While an outraged world calls upon its watchdog, the Middle Eastern region itself may not be shouting as loud as the rest for Obama to intervene.
Roadmap to American Leadership
Obama must attempt once more to reshape America’s international reputation. He must look to reign in America’s international sphere of military dominance beginning with his drone policy which has a detrimental effect upon mass population opinions in the Middle Eastern countries in which the attacks are deployed. Obama noted in a 2013 speech to young Israeli’s in Jerusalem that “peace begins not just in the plans of leaders, but in the hearts of people”, and it is the Arabic counterparts of these young Israeli’s whose hearts and minds he must gain access to. In order to do so, Obama must look to a new tactic and remove the narrative of fear and ‘the other’ upon which America has so long relied. In 2013, the hope of the 2008 campaign narrative and the spectre of the 2009 Cairo speech are faint, yet not un-ignitable. Obama must recapture America’s policy response and through improved awareness of cultural and societal difference, tackle growing descent towards America. U.S. foreign-policy must begin to achieve recognisable victories, something that has been identified by Obama, judging by the shuttle diplomacy of John Kerry between all the current topographic hotspots: Israel/Palestine to Syria and beyond to North Korea.
A way to do this is to return to America’s founding principles that Obama has previously acknowledged were drifted from during the war on terror (principles that America actually has drifted from on and off throughout the 20th century to suit its imperial desires). Even though America must retain a strong military force for the deterrence of antagonists — for both the US and the world’s sake — use of this force must become more restrained. Instead of these arms, America may increase its implementation of soft power policy in the international arena, leading by example and recapture the ‘shining city upon a hill’-element of its history. It must not merely implement American power through the neo-conservative “Rumsfeldian” ideal, American exceptionalism as military strength. It is no longer enough for the U.S. to make Beckettian “try again, fail again, fail better” attempts in the Middle East. It is not simply enough for American administrations to deal with threats by removing dictators and despotic governments and walking away from the pieces, leaving the United Nations to take care of the rebuilds. It is in failed states that the concepts of extremism and theoterrorism grow the fastest.
If America wants to recapture its role as the world’s leader, as the ideal, it can do so through increased humanitarian assistance. Capturing a little of Scandinavia’s altruistic approach to development aid would be a start. By increasing the percentage of GDP that is donated as aid to foreign countries it will make the empire’s de facto power less abrasive. As the world’s leader in R&D, access to American technologies, AIDS drugs and treatments, without the patent barriers and high costs of production would be an overwhelming adjustment of good-will from the US to the developing world. Actions such as this will present to the world as positive an image as John Kerry’s increased frequent flier miles.
A massive downscaling of the drone policy would have further positive effects. Citizen populations on the ground of affected countries have greater access to information through social media than ever before, prevalently seen in the Arab Spring. If drone strikes continue to hit non-combatants or, even still, enemy combatants with large amounts of local traction, foreign opinion of American actions will only plummet further and appear cowardly. For this reason, the Obama administration must reel in its drone policy. This is something that recent press briefings on the topic would suggest the presidency has become aware of.
Finally, America needs to take ownership of its role in world security affairs through more decisive action and smarter deployment of its military personnel. For too long, the U.S. stalled on the topic of the Syrian conflict, and entered the fray (supplying armaments to the rebels) only at a time when it became completely necessary to do so in mid-June 2013 in order to protect the creditability of Obama’s foreign policy. This action came at a point in the conflict that the U.N. estimated 93,000 people minimum had already died. Shades and whispers of Rwanda and U.S. failure to act were in fast increase.
A New Kind of Politics
In comparison to the U.S., a state as small as Ireland has played a significant role in this kind of conflicts. As a nation, Ireland has had a constant presence in U.N. peacekeeping, using the role to somewhat repair a violent domestic history. In a speech in 2009, Ban-Ki Moon recalled the facts of Ireland’s efforts: “Every day for more than half a century, an Irish soldier has been walking point for peace under the UN’s blue flag.” If a country the size of Ireland can reshape its reputation in world peace affairs to this magnitude, the U.S. can redefine itself as the superpower for peace with the right motivation, just as it can in development terms with the altruism of Scandinavian nations.
Not to start throwing around clichés like the current administration has done with the term ‘red line’, America under Obama’s leadership, must begin to ‘walk the walk’, not simply employ rhetoric in order to rebuild its reputation and keep it safe. The time for soaring rhetorical turn of phrase is during election campaigns and Obama will never run in another election in his life. The big wins could be yet to come and the prize of a respected international legacy is one worth fighting for. Obama has the capabilities and the diplomatic tools to convince people to pull in a peaceful direction. He has the personal narrative to spur hope. He now needs the courage to take risks. He must open up America’s actions to embrace the “exceptionalism” of the more constrained European players, whose international actions lead by dead and example, and are beacons of freedom and justice to the world. Through these methods, Obama might possibly leave America safer and more respected than when he inherited it. A return to its principles might leave a modal for which it could follow for years to come. And may even justify a prematurely endowed Noble Peace Prize.