Speech at United Nations sees Obama’s and America’s return to realpolitik
World View: Obama is pragmatically adjusting to a new reality
Barack Obama: spoke of a ’hard-earned humility’. Photograph: Getty
It could have been a very different speech. Only a few weeks ago it looked like the UN General Assembly would be meeting this week under the shadow of US missile strikes against Syria and US president Barack Obama would have been defending a go-it-alone, interventionist US against a hostile gathering.
Instead, with Syria’s acceptance of Russian proposals to destroy its chemical weapons, Obama was pragmatically adjusting to a new reality, marching in step, reaffirming his commitment to multilateral institutions and dialogue, notably with the old enemy Iran, and returning to themes of his first days in office. The old Obama, the reluctant superpower.
“The United States has a hard-earned humility when it comes to our ability to determine events inside other countries,” he told delegates (though the requisite elements of US exceptionalism that leavened the speech for his domestic audience remind one of the words from the old Mac Davis song: “Oh, Lord, it’s hard to be humble/ When you’re perfect in every way”).
He cautioned US critics to beware of what they wished for. “The recent debate within the US over Syria clearly showed the danger for the world is not an America that is eager to immerse itself in the affairs of other countries or take on every problem in the region as its own,” he said.
“The danger for the world is that the US, after a decade of war – rightly concerned about issues back home, aware of the hostility that our engagement in the region has engendered throughout the Muslim world – may disengage, creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill.”
There was a reaffirmation of liberal-interventionism that could well have been scripted by UN ambassador Samantha Power, and as if he were making the speech he did not have to make: “[National] sovereignty cannot be a shield for tyrants to commit one murder. Or an excuse for the international community to turn a blind eye.
“While we need to be modest in our belief that we can remedy every evil, while we need to be mindful that the world is full of unintended consequences, should we really accept the notion that the world is powerless in the face of a Rwanda, or Srebrenica?”
But this was primarily a return to realpolitik , a retreat from the human rights- and democracy-championing interventionist US of the Arab Spring years, in what one writer called Obama’s “most significant foreign policy statement since becoming president”.
The willingness to engage meaningfully with Iran was echoed in an explanation of why, despite human rights misgivings, the US will continue to work with Egypt’s military.
“Our approach to Egypt reflects a larger point: The US will at times work with governments that do not meet the highest international expectations, but who work with us on our core interests.”
Those core interests he
defined as countering military aggression against US partners in the region,
protecting global energy reserves, and confronting the dual threats of terrorism and nuclear proliferation.
“The United States of America is prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force, to secure these core interests in the region,” he said bluntly.
“To say these are America’s core interests is not to say these are our only interests. We . . . will continue to promote democracy, human rights and open markets, because we believe these practices achieve peace and prosperity. But I also believe that we can rarely achieve these objectives through unilateral American action – particularly with military action.”
But “the danger of a turn back toward realpolitik”, John Judis writes in New Republic, “is that Obama will abandon even a declaratory attempt to promote human rights and the stirrings of popular rule in the Middle East. But in respect to Obama’s willingness to deal with Iran and to throw America’s weight behind a resolution of the century-old Israeli/ Palestinian conflict, Obama’s new turn could lead to astonishingly positive results in the Middle East.”
There’s many a slip between cup and lip but talks on both issues are under way.
Judis points out that the widely held perception of second-term presidents as foreign-policy lame ducks is not borne out by Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, who achieved their greatest successes in their second terms. Obama clearly sees himself in that mould.
Significantly, despite a commitment two years ago to make a “pivot to Asia” , Obama only mentioned China once and ignored Japan and South Korea entirely.
The US’s two priorities, he said, were Iran and Israel/Palestine, with passing references to Africa.