Tom Jocelyn at the Standard writes a good post today on the fact that “Obama’s Popularity Abroad Does Not Equal Gains for America.” In short: his personal popularity has not changed any of the complexes of problems with which President Bush was face and for which he was frequently blamed (not least by Candidate Obama).
The Czar suggests I relate this to the Volgi’s Fallacy of Foreign-Policy Egocentrism (FFPE).
To recap, the Fallacy of Foreign-Policy Egocentrism states It’s not all about us. Which is to say that other nations’ attitudes towards the United States are largely driven by factors outside America’s control.* We can to some degree encourage or deter them in various behaviors, but changing their strategic calculations is often impossible. Countries have interests, not friendships, and they don’t abandon (or even rethink) them easily.
Even in highly sympathetic alliances like the Anglo-American “Special Relationship,” the friendship is an outgrowth of the coöperation towards common interests. The Special Relationship is based not only on cultural affinities but a common recognition from 1815–1945 or so, that as preëminent mercantile powers, Britain and the United States had a much stronger common interest in burying the hatchet of the Revolution and maintaining peace and open sea lanes in the Atlantic.
This recognition was not obvious at the time. Our common language, culture, etc. (then far closer than now), did nothing to draw the U.S. and Britain together. Indeed, the War of 1812 was to some degree the aftershock of the War of Independence, with hostile post-war diplomacy ultimately rekindling a shooting war.†
America could well have become France West, constantly fighting Britain every decade or two for centuries. But fortunately cooler, more insightful heads prevailed—and most importantly, the thesis laid out in the Treaty of Ghent‡ was vindicated by reality. But there was nothing inevitable about its success. For similar reasons, although attenuated with Britain’s withdrawing from the world stage over the last half of the twentieth century, even dreadful, almost antagonistic diplomacy—like the various protocol gaffes (or insults) directed at the British by the administration—won’t derail the Anglo-American reliance as there’s too much in it for both sides. (The question of the American-Israeli alliance is more interesting: massive Israeli distrust of President Obama in what Israelis regard as the existential problem of an Iranian bomb may be leading them to consider alternate security arrangements; Binyamin Netanyahu’s recent trip to Moscow is potentially suggestive in this regard.)
These days, the FFPE surfaces in theories like the idea that Russia has traded us a green-light for an attack on Iran for our “third site” missile defense. This ignores the fact that the Russians have played a significant role in the Iranian nuke program and have no reason to throw them over the side. Moreover, Russia’s entire objection to the site is not a reaction to anything we did, but an intentional gambit on their part. They’ve created a bargaining chip—they’ll stop being outraged if we give them what they want. It has nothing to do with our behavior or how they perceive it, and the fact that influential people seem to believe it does shows the pervasiveness and seductiveness of the FFPE.
Seductiveness? Absolutely. Because if the problem is us, we can fix it by changing our behavior.** All problems become solvable. In reality, alas, it’s not so. Putin’s policy lodestar of a Russia that can throw its weight around its periphery and perhaps reabsorb some of it into a Great Russian Imperium is utterly and unchangeably outside our doing. China’s desire to be a hegemon in East Asia and a Great Power on a global scale poses similar problems, though a number of factors work in our favor in that instance. That said, history is a bunch of decisions made by fallible humans—brilliant, great, venal, stupid, unlucky alike—which is why the ability to project a clear image to one’s potential adversaries disinclining them towards an increased adversarial posture (ultimately war). See the Volgi’s rants about the utility of the F-22 and the use of the military in this respect. Or just say si vis pacem, blah blah blah.
How does the entirely unshocking (to the Volgi and our brilliant readers) “Obama’s Popularity Abroad Does Not Equal Gains for America” thesis relate to the FFPE? Well, it’s simply that fallacy on the steroid of insane self-regard (or hero worship). President Obama campaigned on the idea that he’d fix our strained relationships with our European allies just by being his own, cool self instead of that toothless hillbilly psychopath with whom one simply could not discuss Voltaire. Of course, our real problem with our European allies is that they’re demographically troubled countries which have spent themselves into impotence by choosing butter, butter, and mo’ butter, and shunning guns. There are ways to improve our relations, but the idea that personality can play a decisive role is delusional.
What chimerai President Obama is chasing with his “open hand” to Ahmadî-Nezhâd, Chávez, Ortega, Putin, Kim Jong-Il—and even a clown like Manuel Zelaya against the legal authorities in his own country—is hard to see. One suspects as a lifelong denizen of élite leftist demesnes, he’s internalized the leftist critique of America as a force for evil in the world and gravitates towards those who share that opinion—out of inclination as well as a desire to convince them that now, with him in charge, America is no longer the villain of the piece, but on the right side of history.
President Obama is not alone in his delusion that clever words, a nice smile, and a quick wit can reälign constellations. Probably encouraged by his idiot, scumbag, Stalin-apologist ambassador, Joseph Davies††, FDR believed his considerable charm could help keep Stalin in check, and frequently tried to win him over with anti-Churchill jabs. How’d that work out for Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, et al.? Clinton tried to schmooze Arafat (bitterly upbraiding him, “I’m a colossal failure, and you’ve made me one!”). Dubya looked deep into Pooty-Poot’s eyes and saw his soul. (What he actually likely saw was the cross the KGB had told Putin to wear to sucker the heart-on-his-sleeve American.)
Although Democrats seem to have a particular weakness for this kind of Obamalatrous personalization these days, probably the most famous instance of this kind of delusion in America is the posthumously reported reaction of Sen. William Borah (R-Okla.) to the Nazi invasion of Poland, “Lord, if only I could have talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided.”
It’s largely a politician’s vice—they’ve gotten to where they are by clever talk, so they believe that clever talk is the key to all success—and it’s reinforced by the sycophancy and hero-worship that they constantly experience. By the same token, as primates, we tend to place excessive faith in our alpha male. The urge to surrender faith to a god-king is deeply rooted in human nature, and many “analysts” and pundits tend to treat their guy as invested with demidivine powers.
So, it’s both the FFPE and simple, old-fashioned egotism (or the sin of pride, if you’re so inclined) foundering, as wishful, magical thinking eventually does. Obama’s popularity abroad can be a useful tool for public diplomacy in democratic countries—or perhaps to inspire oppressed populaces like Iran’s. It cannot, however, be relied upon as a diplomatic asset, especially when dealing with countries which have chosen for their own reasons to regard us—the sole, massively militarily superior superpower—as their enemy. As we’ve said again and again, this appeal—essentially, “like us!”—is read as weakness, and (even good-faith) supplication gets slapped down.
Real diplomatic progress, especially with enemies, depends upon a single maxim: punish your enemies, reward your friends. This creates an incentive structure for enemies to find ways to consider you a friend, or at least to not antagonize you. And before anyone objects that this is a recipe for war, that’s nonsense. Governments possess a panoply of measures—diplomatic, economic, military, political—with which to attempt to others. At bottom, it’s a question of establishing credibility, resolve, and respect, which is often deadly dull and painfully difficult, not to mention entirely uninteresting to most politicians, who are constitutionally inclined to view a speech, a summit, and public regard as ends rather than means.
Real statesmen understand the difference, but the older one gets, the more one realizes how few and far between they are on the world stage.
*This applies to any country, not just the U.S. Although, as the sole superpower, our people—just like credulous conspiracy-theory believers abroad—tend to credit the U.S. and its government with magical godlike abilities that it just doesn’t have.
†Note to our beloved Canadian readers: the theory that the U.S. invaded British North America in order to annex it has largely been discredited despite its popularity north of the border. So let’s be friends, baby.
‡The most important treaty you may have never heard of.
** Some solutions may fall into this category, but the calculus has to be not “is our behavior ‘offensive’ or ‘bad’” but “what do we gain by changing this?” There are times we can and should act against some concrete interests in the interest of abstract ones like the promotion of liberty (political and economic)—the immediate impact may be negligible or even negative, but the American enterprise is premised, metaphysically, on the idea that the spread of liberty is in the long run a practical as well as moral good. We should probably err on the side of promoting liberty, but we can’t be entirely dogmatic about it. Foreign policy is ultimately a practical, dirty-hands business. To treat it as a “realist” gets you lost in the weeds, to treat it as an “idealist” will get you torqued around inconvenient realities.
††For Liberal Fascism fans scoring at home, Davies was (a) a Wilson Administration official, (b) worked as a lawyer/economic advisor for José Trujillo, the fascist dictator of the Dominican Republic (Trujillo later bought Davies’ yacht), and (c) a huge stooge for Stalin under FDR.
Don’t ask impertinent questions like that jackass Adept Lu.