President Obama has created significant coverage recently in his attempts to reconcile the tensions that lie at the heart of American foreign policy: how intervention can be necessary for self-determination, how the circle of national interests can be squared with the spreading of values. America lost considerable moral authority over its international conduct under George W. Bush, by appearing on the wrong side of this divide. With the loss of authority came a loss of confidence, a confidence that America seems only just to be recovering.
Whatever your opinion on the realities of the War on Terror, it had the potential to be conceptually just. As with Iraq, it was a war that promised liberation, but which was hijacked by the wrong people, and fought badly, often for the wrong reasons. This failure is something of which Obama is acutely aware, and the sapping of confidence to which he alluded in his inaugural address has taken until now to regain any sense of purpose. The last two weeks have seen two major speeches, one in Washington and the other in our own Houses of Parliament, in which attempts to rekindle the self-belief in the viability of exporting American ideals, and its role in their dissemination, were finally apparent.
These are tempered by perhaps the most consistent values of his rhetoric: the deference of “humility” to “dignity,” words which have not received the attention they deserve. They are not themselves values, though they underpin a philosophy which is suddenly emerging into a recognizable policy, following two years of unsustainable ‘pragmatism.’ It seems that the Obama administration has finally subscribed to the possibility that the events of the Arab Spring are supported by a critical mass of those under autocratic and corrupt rule; that there is a possibility for widespread, organically generated regime change that is more than superficial. Erring on the side of caution until international opinion has solidified, for which he received charges of “pathetic dithering”, may be part of a larger strategy.
This was implicit from his speech in Westminster last week: “we do this knowing that the West must overcome suspicion and mistrust among many in the Middle East and North Africa – a mistrust that is rooted in a difficult past.” The recognition that treading lightly is the prerogative of the powerful, and the human face of humility is a prerequisite to mutual cooperation, is a paradigm shift. Such trust will take incredible effort to build, and can be dashed in a moment. The Obama administration ruffled the feathers of the left-wing with its idea of ‘justice’ used in dispensing with Osama Bin Laden. It seems largely to have got away with this ‘extra-judicial’ execution – for that is what it was – on the basis of Bin Laden’s indeterminate status as an individual and blatant difficulties of putting him on trial.
However, this is not something it is likely to escape from a second time, especially if it involves a similar infringement of national sovereignty as in Pakistan. If America is party to the killing of Colonel Gadaffi outside of its UN remit of protecting Libyan civilians – which seems an increasing possibility given the zeal of the NATO forces – then the rhetoric of the “higher standard of the rule of law”, including the “law of war” to which he alluded at Westminster, will seem increasingly vacuous.
This was brought to light last week with the capture of Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb military leader held in large measure responsible for the worst European genocide since the Second World War. His capture in Serbia and extradition to the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague is an example of the effectiveness of a single international judiciary for crimes of this magnitude. This International Criminal Court is the same body that two weeks ago demanded a warrant for the arrest of Colonel Gadaffi, his son Saif and his chief intelligence officer on charges of crimes against humanity. The trials of Hosni Mubarak and Ben Ali will be litmus tests for the integrity of the fledgling democracies of Egypt and Tunisia, and American support for a thorough and just trial in any regime change must be absolute.
The role that an internationally recognized and respected body such as the ICC could play in the difficult transition from tyranny in Libya and elsewhere could be profound. It will, however, be increasingly difficult with the breed of American isolationism that saw George Bush withdraw the intent to ratify the treaty establishing the legitimacy of the ICC in 2002. Ratification has occurred in 114 countries thus far, yet a glance at those countries which voted against such a move is a sobering experience. The US is one of a club of seven that included Iraq, Libya, China, and Yemen; such exalted company speaks for itself.
The leading American charge against the ICC was put vividly by Hillary Clinton: “we are more vulnerable to the misuse of an international criminal court because of the international role we play and the resentments that flow from that ubiquitous presence around the world.” In Voltaire’s famous formulation, great power comes with great responsibility; withdrawing from the same system of justice it purports to enforce merely reinforces such resentments.
In many ways the challenge is yet to come, and two promising speeches do not constitute penance for past crimes abroad. Yet the consensus among commentators is that the events of this year pose the kind of opportunity that comes once a generation: to sow seeds of stability and economic sustainability across North Africa and the Middle East that are not dependent on authoritarian regimes. However, Egypt and Tunisia conducted secular revolutions in secular Arab autocracies, and Libya was a basket case run by a leader whose human rights abuses were beyond repute. Perhaps the most idealistic line in the whole speech was thus: “We must also insist that we reject as false the choice between our interests and our ideals; between stability and democracy.”
What of the remaining OPEC countries? If ‘gas prices’ end up being the major battleground in next years presidential election, will Obama risk subverting the authority of governments in Algeria and (whisper it) Saudi Arabia? Will he extend support to those who wish to protest for greater fundamental entitlements before the are silenced? This will be a defining issue not just for Obama, but for the West as an entity.
Obama’s grasp about the nature of American values seems a sophisticated one, based on an appreciation that there is no such thing as a manifest destiny of liberal democracy. I like Obama – I like what he represents, I like his modus operandi, and believe in the rightness of his motives. His oratory in support of liberal democracy and inviolable human rights is convincing because it is conveyed with a heaviness and sincerity, as if he understands the counter-arguments and pitfalls of ideological imperialism.
One even has the sense that he understands the threats to democracy within his own boarders, though that is a different story. In the tempered idealism that has emerged in the last weeks, there is a sense of proportion and of the value of treading lightly after the imposed ‘nation building’ of the Bush Years, the moral equivalence of the terror it unleashed, and the missing billions. Under a figure such as Obama, we should not write off America as an agent to speed the winds of change in the world.