New US brand name, new policies?

Business Times - 07 Apr 2009

New US brand name, new policies?

Obama's revamp of the American image abroad has won approval; now he must follow through with appropriate action


THE first and probably most important thing that was going for US President Barack Obama during his meetings with world leaders in Europe was that he was not George W Bush.

Indeed, many observers have contrasted the former and current US presidents in terms of their personalities - the gauche and clumsy Mr Bush versus the charming, and urbane Mr Obama, and proposed that the new White House occupant has captivated the world with his charisma while his predecessor had repulsed them with his crudeness.

But that kind of explanation for Mr Obama's rock-star performance in London, Strasbourg, Prague and Ankara, and the perception that he handled the many economic and geopolitical policy issues on the agendas of the Group of 20 (G-20) and Nato summits like an international statesman, do not do justice to either Mr Bush, or for that matter, Mr Obama.

Mr Bush's failure in managing the many global problems confronting the United States during his eight years in office had less to do with his persona and his lack of sophistication and charm. After all, the scion to a brahmin American family, who was a Yale and Harvard graduate, a former governor of Texas and, more important, had won the US presidency - not once but twice - had to have some good personal qualities, no?

The fact is that Mr Bush would have never become an international superstar even if he had more public appeal. His lack of diplomatic appeal reflects the disastrous policies that his administration pursued - the most dramatic being the decision to invade Iraq and the total mismanagement of that military adventure.

But beyond the specific global policies that Washington had pursued during his two terms in office, the name of George W Bush has come to be associated in the minds of so many residents of the Global Village with a failed American diplomatic brand name.

Just mention 'Iraq' or 'Gitmo' or 'Abu Ghraib' or 'Old Europe' or 'neocons' or 'Axis of Evil' to a European, a Chinese, an Egyptian or a Brazilian, and the first thing that would probably come to their minds would be 'Empire' or 'Cowboy' or 'Unilateralism' or 'Arrogance', or just 'the Ugly American'.

You could make the argument that Mr Bush and his neoconservative ideologues attempted to preserve and even extend American supremacy at a time when US military, and then economic, resources failed to measure up to this ambitious task. It is quite possible that if American military and diplomatic power ended up fulfilling the goals that Mr Bush's Washington had set for the US - establishing a Pax Americana worldwide and broadening the reach of the American political and economic model - the notion of an American Empire would have become attractive: celebrating Iraqis would have been welcoming with flowers the triumphant Texas cowboy to Baghdad.

Not unlike a marketing campaign that proves to be a failure as the brand name loses its magic when consumers discover that the toothpaste leaves their teeth yellow or, even worse, contains some poisonous substance, the diplomatic strategy under George W Bush sank the American brand name to the global sewer as the international community became aware of the huge discrepancy between the American pretension for geopolitical (Iraq) and moral (Gitmo) supremacy.

And now in the post-Lehman Brothers/AIG era, coming to your neighbourhood's financial institution is the decline and fall of US economic primacy, a pivotal part of the American brand name.

From that perspective, what is also going for Mr Obama's strategy of creating a new US global brand name is that he and his nation have nowhere else to go but up. That America's new president is young, intelligent and cosmopolitan - not to mention the fact that he is the first African-American president in US history - does place him in an ideal position to market a new US brand name.

By definition, it will be perceived as the 'anti-Bush' - a policy based on multilateralism as opposed to unilateralism and one that places emphasis on diplomatic engagement and does not resort to the use of military force as the first and primary policy option; that respects international law and norms and refrains from violating them; and that regards the US not as a pushy hegemon that is entitled to force its position on others but as a First among Equals in the international community that works together with other partners to achieve common goals.

That the US under President Obama was being rebranded reflects the reality of the international system and the limits operating on American power. It became clear even before the new president had embarked on his European trip. Look at the concrete and symbolic decisions that he has made: closing down the Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp and reiterating US opposition to torture; accelerating the US withdrawal from Iraq and expressing support for diplomatic engagement with Iran and Syria, while calling for establishing new diplomatic and civilisational bridges with the Muslim World; 'resetting' the US-Russian relationship in a more cooperative mode and embracing a more pragmatic style with regard to the Sino-American relationship.

Moreover, Mr Obama and his chief diplomatic and national security aides have refrained from transforming every tense relationship with another government into a dramatic confrontation between 'us' and 'them' or between 'good' and 'evil'.

In a way, Mr Obama's preoccupation with the economic crisis - which clearly reflects the American public's priorities - only helped to demonstrate that the US, contrary to the impression created by his predecessor, could not and should not try to resolve every global and regional problem on its own.

On any global issue (terrorism or climate change) or on a specific regional conflict (Middle East), the US will have to get things done by working together with other global and regional partners and by trying to engage competitors and even rivals.

And if Mr Bush and the neoconservatives assumed that the US working with Britain and the so-called 'coalition of the willing' could help maintain the old international status quo, Mr Obama and his realist aides have made it clear that they were ready to reform the post-World War II system, and in particular by encouraging China, India and other rising powers to take their rightful place as members of the global board of directors.

'There has been a lot of comparison here about Bretton Woods,' Mr Obama said at the press conference following the G-20 summit and recalling the conference in 1944, during which the US and Britain helped create the foundations of the postwar economic order.

'Well, if it is just Roosevelt and Churchill sitting in a room with a brandy - you know, well, that's an easier negotiation. But that's not the world we live in. And it shouldn't be the world that we live in. It's not a loss for America. It's an appreciation that Europe is now rebuilt and a powerhouse. Japan is rebuilt, is a powerhouse. China, India, these are all countries on the move. And that's good.'

Through this statement, the medium (Mr Obama) became part of the message. He is the first non-white occupant of the White House, whose election helped produce a historic transformation in American politics. He reflects the demographic changes in the country (with non-whites expected to become the majority before mid-century). Thus the US was now ready to embrace similar challenge to the global balance of power as East Asia and other developing nations get ready to replace the old Anglo-American condominium.

While neither the G-20 summit nor the Nato meetings have produced dramatic changes in policy, they did point to the willingness by the Obama administration to reach compromises with US partners instead of trying to force their hands. Hence while neither side got what they wanted - the Europeans pushed for a global financial regulatory system while the Americans pressed for a European commitment to increase domestic spending - they agreed on new funding for the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

And while Mr Obama acknowledged American responsibility for the current crisis, the Europeans refrained from using the occasion as another opportunity to blast so-called Anglo-Saxon capitalism.

At the same time, the Nato summit marked France's return to the alliance's command structure - a historic initiative of French President Nicolas Sarkozy - while the Europeans agreed to make new contributions of troops for Afghanistan.

'America is a critical actor and leader on the world stage, and we shouldn't be embarrassed about that,' Mr Obama said in London. 'But we exercise our leadership best when we are listening, when we recognise the world is a complicated place and that we are going to have to act in partnership with other countries, when we lead by example, when we show some element of humility and recognise we may not always have the best answer.'

Now will come the hard part. Mr Obama's leadership on the home front will be tested as he tries to prevent the recession from turning into a full-blown depression. His leadership will also be tested by the effort to place a concrete structure for the new international economic order, with the Sino-American relationship at the centre of this process. And again, when the Obama administration launches new diplomatic initiatives in the Middle East and in Pakistan-Afghanistan.

Will the Europeans be willing to make more military resources available in the war in Afghanistan? Will China and Russia agree to exert more diplomatic pressure on Iran? Is there any chance for reviving the Israel-Palestine peace process? In short, will Mr Obama be able to utilise the new American brand name to help produce successful diplomatic outcomes?

Copyright © 2007 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


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