Yes, we still can (but leadership and disciplined support are needed)

The striking thing about the most powerful person in the world, as he approaches one year in office, is how, err, lacking in power he appears.

Disappointed and, according to Mark Lynas, insulted by the Chinese in Copenhagen.  A Health Care Bill that isn’t yet on the statute; is much delayed on his original timetable; and, by his own admission, is only “nine-tenths of a loaf” – some would say that half a loaf is nearer the mark and it comes with lashings of pork barrel whatever way you look at it. An Afghan strategy that even he doesn’t seem wholly convinced by and the backdrop to which Andrew Sullivan commented upon by saying:

“Obama arrived in China last month as a fiscal supplicant, not the leader of the free world. He cannot corner the Iranian regime without Russian or Chinese support. He cannot even get Israel, a country receiving $3 billion a year in aid and protected by America’s veto at the United Nations, simply to cease its construction of settlements in East Jerusalem or the West Bank.”

All of which simply serves to illustrate my point: How devoid of power the most powerful can be. That’s not to excuse any disappointments that President Obama may have caused or to defend his record (though, there is much more to defend than the increasingly naysayer conventional wisdom suggests). It is simply to place his presidency in context.

This is a context in which his power is more obviously finite and constrained than has been the case for most modern US presidents. Internationally, this is the consequence of the “unipolar moment”, first proclaimed, I think, by Charles Krauthammer in 1990, waning (or, perhaps, being more obviously exposed as the hubristic delusion it always was). Domestically, this is the bitter fruit of what appears to Paul Krugman to be an increasingly dysfunctional Senate. This is a dysfunctionality that means that the Democrats control the presidency and both Houses but are still held to ransom by (dilute to taste) filibustering, partisan, pork barrel-seeking Republicans.

The international dimensions of this are well illustrated by Philip Bobbitt.

“What if Iran simply agrees to limited inspections, and continues enrichment to the point where weapons-grade nuclear material is created? What then? … Israel has resumed the construction of settlements in the West Bank, and it seems clear that Abbas cannot sustain domestic support in the face of the challenge from Hamas if he goes back to the negotiating table without even a temporary freeze on settlement expansion. Obama has little leverage on this issue—as his predecessors also found—but has committed himself to the proposition that “talks must begin and begin soon.” Or what? … Having previously announced it would not renew talks in the six-party format, North Korea has now indicated to the Chinese that it would re-engage in that forum, provided the US simultaneously opens bilateral talks. The US has insisted, quite sensibly, that regional multilateralism is the best way forward. But what if North Korea continues to refuse?”

The growing worry is that the Iranians, Israelis and North Koreans – not to mention the Chinese, Russians, the Taliban and others – have concluded that “nothing much” is the answer to every “What then?” In other words, as the Economist notes:

“The doubters argue that, however decent and articulate, Mr Obama is gaining a reputation as someone who can be pushed around. This month, after the president pandered to China by refusing to meet the Dalai Lama, China pushed for more by banning questions at his Beijing press conference with Hu Jintao, its president. When Mr Obama demanded that Israel stop all work on its settlements in the occupied territories, Binyamin Netanyahu, its prime minister, defied him and still, staggeringly, won praise from Hillary Clinton.”

It is even said that this praise from Clinton lays the groundwork for her to run against Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2012. This argument goes that she will need an issue on which to split with Obama to do so and support for Israel would fit this bill. It is to be hoped that this argument is nonsense. But the mere suggestion that the President does not command the absolute and complete loyalty of all of his team implies weakness in a manner as profound as the swipes and pushed envelopes that have come his way via China, Israel et al.

The counter to this line of argument is also provided by the Economist:

“Mr Obama has pulled off the urgent tasks of starting to withdraw troops from Iraq and resetting America’s dysfunctional relations with Russia. He has boosted the G20 as a new global forum. This week Israel announced a partial settlement freeze. With health-care reform under his belt, he will soon be able to turn to world affairs with his status enhanced. Besides, you could hardly accuse Mr Obama of timidity. In three speeches in Prague, Cairo and Accra, he set out a new foreign policy that rejects the Manichean view of his predecessor. He means to negotiate deep cuts in nuclear weapons, make peace between Arabs and Jews, engage Iran, heal the climate and establish America as the strongest and most upright pole of a multipolar world. Yes, this work lies ahead, but how much can you ask in a year of war and recession?”

Health care reform is, just about, under his belt and it is hard to argue with the view of the Obama camp that this reform needed to be taken on in the first year of his presidency before mid-term elections which are likely to further undermine his ability to impose his will upon Congress. His presidency moves into a new phase with this reform behind him. However, perhaps, there are lessons to be learned for this next phase from the protracted way in which this reform was secured.

While the dysfunctionality of the Senate bemoaned by Krugman may make it all the harder for Obama’s will to prevail, it is important, no matter how great this dysfunctionality, that Obama exerts a will. In other words, he needs to lead. The tactics of how he does so can be debated, but the President does need to show genuine leadership. As Clive Crook writes:

“Mr Obama promised to strive for consensus. On issues such as energy policy, healthcare, education and immigration, there is no reason why moderates on both sides cannot make common cause. That is something many Americans long for. It was the great hope independents had of Mr Obama. In his first year, he rarely even tried. He simply chose not to exercise this kind of leadership.”

I must confess that I am both surprised and disappointed by the absence of such leadership. I anticipated that it would be forged on the radical centre (or center). Crook is right to worry that the absence of leadership that works towards such radicalism threatens “a drubbing in 2010 that will do for Mr Obama’s agenda what the wipe-out of 1994 did for Bill Clinton’s”.

While a drubbing can be averted, it is likely that the mid-terms will weaken the Democrats in Washington. This underlines the importance of strong leadership from the centre, of the kind which Crook described thus:

“On health, on energy, on public spending, independent voters want him to exercise centrist leadership, as he promised he would. Can’t he even pretend? For the sake of his Democratic majorities, he had better show voters he is listening, even if his allies in Congress are not.”

But there are plenty of willing allies for Obama in Congress who want the Democrats to behave in this way. A key example being Mark Warner, excellently profiled in the Washington Post this week. That he defines his philosophy as “radical centrism” should be a massive hint that this is the kind of Democratic Senator that Obama needs to work with and through to build consensus, bi-partisan if at all possible, for his agenda. It may be indicative of where things have gone wrong for the Democrats and Obama in the past year that the sense that Warner feels a little left out in the cold by his party pervades the Washington Post profile. It cites John J. Castellani, president of the Business Roundtable, an association of chief executives of large U.S. companies, saying of him:

“Obviously, in 2008, America voted for change. But they are maybe finding out now that they didn’t want to vote for big government spending that’s unchecked, or government intervention to a very, very low level into the economy. Mark Warner really represents that kind of middle ground that wants government to help solve problems but not so much interfere with all areas of the economy.”

There is nothing that Democratic Senators like Warner would like more than to work with the President on this middle ground to get America’s economy growing as strongly as it can do in 2010, control public debt and to seriously correct the US’ disturbingly high unemployment. These are causes which, if approached in the right way, these Senators are likely to be able to build bi-partisan support for. Moreover, in terms of the Democrats avoiding mid-term meltdown, we really are looking at a case of “it’s the economy, stupid”.

Obama should be Bill Clinton-like in recognising the political centrality of the economy and also take some lessons from another great Democratic pragmatist: LBJ. While we can all join Anthony Painter in hoping that Afghanistan does not see Obama transformed into Barack B Johnson, Obama should seek to be – pace E. J. Dionne Jr – LBJ-like in terms of working Congress and building up support for his policies amongst Congressmen.

So: insofar as his domestic agenda is concerned, the course which I would recommend to President Obama in 2010 is to reach out to the nation and Congress, particularly colleagues like Warner, through centrist leadership, with a strong focus upon improving America’s economic outlook. This will be the best way to be economical with (indeed, grow) his political capital (which is now dangerously low after the ending of his all too brief honeymoon in the White House). Furthermore, the policies of true radicalism are invariably to be found in policies that are that are the stuff of such leadership, rather than the stuff of Democratic or Republican sacred cows. Essentially, independent voters remain the key demographic (and the biggest threat to Obama being a two term President would come if the Republicans selected a candidate more capable of reaching out to them than someone like Sarah Palin) and the policies which appeal most to these voters are also the policies which will do most to change America in the ways that it should change.

Improvement in America’s economic prospects is a key linkage point between his domestic and international agendas. Niall Ferguson claims that noting that “the yawning US current account deficit was increasingly being financed by Asian central banks, with the Chinese moving into pole position, was, for me at least, the eureka moment of the decade”. He’s right to see this as such a moment and to see this as “the decade that tilted east” and away from the supposed uniploar dominance of the USA.

Given that the Chinese are re-cycling the massive trade surplus that they are running against the US to finance the US current account deficit, part of the correction to this – and an end towards which Obama can work with the likes of Warner – is to reduce the Chinese trade surplus by growing American exports. Another part is to control public debt. There are great opportunities for the American (and British) firms that come to satisfy the wants and needs of the rising middle classes of the BRIC economies, who have got rich (or richer) by producing the exports that are the stuff of the trade deficits (and maxed out credit cards, etc) experienced by both the US and the UK.

But the imbalances in the “Chimerica” economy are too substantial to be corrected by the innovations and efforts of American exporters alone. We’ve have all, allegedly, become Keynesians in the past year or so, but while there has been much talk of fiscal stimulus, there has been much less of the deep concern which Keynes had about surplus economies, which lead to the creation of the Bretton Woods system (though, this system did not conform to the plans Keynes actually had).

There is, perhaps, no better indicator of the way the world has changed than that today the relationship between the Chinese economy (running a massive trade surplus) and the American (running a massive trade deficit) directly parallels the relationship between the American (running a massive surplus) and the British (running a massive deficit) at the time in the 1940s when Keynes’ concerns about surplus economies fed into the debate which resulted in Bretton Woods. 

It is no coincidence that what Derek Scott has described as the “re-emergence of genuine capitalism, including large-scale private sector capital flows” has come about in the decades after the demise of Bretton Woods. This development has been broadly welcome, lifting millions of people in places like the BRIC economies out of absolute poverty. But Bretton Woods increasingly seems something that if it doesn’t exist, as is obviously now the case, is in need of (re)invention. What is required, in essence, is some global mechanism to correct for the imbalances between surplus and deficit economies that are the real story of the economic crisis. 

Andrew Sullivan is, of course, right to lament that “Britain in the late 1950s had a friendly superpower to whom she could surrender global hegemony. America has no such luxury”. In contrast, the future seems one of contested modernities, with values and visions that would please most Americans and Europeans being ever more marginalised. One of the great dangers that I perceive in coming decades is that the “west” will react to this by lashing out in ever more ill-advised and dramatic ways. It is again hard to argue with Niall Ferguson’s argument that great episodes of violence occur at the end of empires and the end of America’s empire seems much closer than its beginning.

This would seem much more likely if the “right nation” were to swing back to the right under a President Palin or similar in 2012. The alternative to World War III under Palin, given the absence of a friendly superpower, is to now fashion a multilateral world in which it is much more likely than otherwise that American (and European) interests and values will be best served in the decades to come during which the notion of a unipolar world will be as laughable and out-dated as the excesses of the British Empire now seem (or, at least, the notion of an American unipolar moment may be so, but the Chinese Charles Krauthammer may be closer than many would wish).  

The creation of the global institutions that will form this multilateral world and attempt to steer our Chinese century, now a decade old, is one of the great tasks of Obama’s presidency, and will most probably be passed on to the next president, whether they are as under-qualified or ill-prepared to execute this task as Sarah Palin or otherwise. Obama has made a solid start in this regard, not least through the beefed up role of the G20, but there is much more that remains to be done and, given the significance of the imbalances within the “Chimerican” economy to literally almost everything else, I would commend something along the lines of a Bretton Woods Mark II as a prime candidate for the next round of global institutional building.

The window of opportunity for success in such building is rapidly closing. While the Copenhagen conference itself may be the stuff of such a multilateral world, the outcome of this conference suggests that the Chinese are more interested in looking forward to a very different kind of unipolar world from that envisaged by Krauthammer than working in and through multilateral institutions (i.e. one that would be the stuff of the Chinese Krauthammer’s world view). As one developing country foreign minister said to Mark Lynas: “The Athenians had nothing to offer to the Spartans.” The obvious way to change this dynamic is for the Spartans to have more to offer the Athenians, which, to my mind, takes us back again to the importance of strengthening the American economy, and in turn to Obama working productively with the likes of Warner.

It might seem inane and obvious to propose that America seek to strengthen its economy, but Niall Ferguson is also right that this will require a serious plan for the management of public debt, which may very well require the slaying of some spend-and-tax, Democratic sacred cows, meaning that strong centrist support and leadership will be needed to carry through such a plan. Not least as China’s population is more than four times that of the USA, in the longer-term, it also seems likely to require a immigration system that both provides the labour needed by the American economy and commands the broad support of the American electorate. Such a system is again something which centrist leadership is best able to deliver. 

It might also seem inane and obvious to argue – as I do when I argue that the US should seek to improve its economic performance relative to China and the importance of American exports to Chinese growth – that the negotiating position of American is improved by increased American strength and prestige, but this cuts to the core of many of pivital exchanges confronting America. It is as true around the G20 table as it is in the counterinsurgency battle with the Taliban or battles of will with Iran, North Korea or anyone else. 

The way in which these exchanges are likely to play out could be walked through in game theory models (and such models probably exist in the State Department and elsewhere) but, as any game theorist knows, threats are only of consequence if they are credible. It is clear that American strength is declining as compared with the heady days of the alleged unipolar phase and it is also clear that Obama seems less eager to use force than a Palin or a Dubya (which might be what, ultimately, leads us to the nightmare of a President Palin). However, it is equally clear that America is not without force and influence. To bring this to bear in the great exchanges that confront Obama, a willingness to use this force and influence has to be credible. That’s to say real and seen to be real. In other words, as Obama himself put it in a section from one of his speeches citied by the Economist: “Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something.”

So: insofar as his international agenda is concerned for 2010, I suggest that President Obama continue to work through and towards the kind of multilateral institutions that will best protect American (and European) interests and values when the world is very much less unipolar than it has been, but without having this faith in multilateral institutions confused with American weakness and seeking to ensure that American strength is brought to bear credibly on all the vital engagements with China, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan et al ad infinitum that confront the US.

This is an agenda that Europe should warmly support. However, it has all too sadly been the case that, while Obama is the President that Europe dreamed of, European governments have been far too slow and unwilling to support Obama in material ways.

If Europe really wants the change that Obama promises, this must change. If liberal America (or liberal anywhere) really wants the change that Obama promises, it too must change. It should stop moaning about Obama and start supporting him. Indeed, all with a stake in the change that Obama seeks (i.e. everyone), should come to genuinely be the change that they want to see in the world. After the poetry of his victory, the prose of the presidency can seem a painful hangover, but change never did come easy.

 “We tend to think”, as Michael Tomasky notes, “that Rosa Parks sat on a bus, Martin Luther King gave some great speeches, decent Americans recoiled at racist violence on the nightly news, and boom, change happened. The reality was that nine long years passed from Parks’s act of civil disobedience until Lyndon Johnson signed the civil rights bill – nine years of often mundane and inglorious work.” (That is, of course, by no accident or coincidence the same LBJ that I praised earlier in this blog). “And even then, the civil rights bill didn’t really fix the problem of African Americans being denied the vote, so Congress had to go back the next year and pass the voting rights act.”

Change is tough. But change is already here. “Measured against what different groups of voters thought he had promised – everything they desired – the administration’s performance looks poor”, argues Crook. “Measured against what voters were entitled to expect, it looks much better.” That provides much for liberals to take solace in as they redouble their support for Obama and the Democratic candidates in the mid-terms, but it is what is at stake in terms of the future that should really motivate them in seeking to fortify their President. I am scared of the climatic scenarios painted after the failure of Copenhagen and would be very scared indeed if I came from the Maldives, but the prospect of World War III should scare us all very much more no matter where we come from.

In making recommendations that seek to avert this outcome and bring about the most possible positive change under President Obama, I have probably argued for things which may annoy some liberals or people on the left: “radical centrism”, focusing on the economy, controlling public debt, not being afraid to be prepared to use force to enforce the rules of a multilateral world. I’m sorry if I’ve upset anyone in these ways, but, may be, one lesson of Obama’s first year in office, contrary to what his campaign may have left some people thinking, is that it isn’t possible to please all of the people all of the time.

No one would read Max Weber’s Politics as a Vocation and ever think this possible. However, if this classic text were as widely read and understood as it should be, then, possibly, the kind of leadership from Obama and support for this leadership, which I have argued for here, would be more readily forthcoming. Perhaps, this might be a little worthwhile reading for many of us in what remains of the Christmas holidays.