Usually, the most compelling criticisms of presidential speeches before the UN General Assembly are that they’re cynical exercises in idealistic rhetoric delivered for public relations purposes, and that they tell us almost nothing useful about a particular administration’s foreign policy. The most compelling criticism of President Obama’s latest speech before the UN General Assembly is very different: It seems likely that he really believes the platitudes he spouted about the need to conduct American diplomacy and international relations in general according to the rule of law. In the process, at least, Mr. Obama made abundantly clear why his own foreign policy record has been so ineffective.
The president’s brief for continuing to build “a system of international rules and norms that are better and stronger and more consistent” was impressively detailed. But it ignored all the big obstacles that have kept world affairs an endless and often bloody struggle for power and advantage. It presented no plausible ideas for getting the world from here to there. And it ignored the even more compelling reasons for the United States in particular to reject the president’s seemingly unimpeachable goals.
As Mr. Obama noted, the Hobbesian system he condemns has set the mold for world politics “for most of human history.” But he never even broached the question of “Why?” Had he been the slightest bit curious, he surely would have recognized that no effective system of global rules has ever existed in the security realm because the international sphere completely lacks the essential condition that makes meaningful legal systems possible in the first place: a strong consensus on what represents acceptable and unacceptable behavior.
Groups of individuals that develop this consensus are naturally able to create the two main defining characteristics of genuinely legal systems. First, they can turn this consensus into a set of specific do’s and don’ts that apply equally to all, regardless of power, wealth, or status. Second, they can agree on procedures to resolve disputes peacefully and figure out how to apply these rules to specific sets of circumstances when questions arise.
Although documents such as the UN Charter and the Declaration of Human Rights indicate that acceptable behavior has in fact been defined, the story of the post-World War II period shows that it’s a paper creation. In fact, no actual consensus whatever exists even on whether these principles should apply equally to all countries, much less on binding dispute-resolution mechanisms. And as President Obama should have noted, the United States has been one of the prime culprits. Along with the other major victors of World War II, it insisted that the UN accord them special status via creation of a Security Council in which each could veto any decision made by the organization even if every other member supported it.
But before you condemn that era’s American leaders for ending a new golden age of international law before it even began, ask yourself why Washington should have agreed to to permit its actions to be checked by any other countries or groups of countries. Should it have trusted in the superior wisdom or virtue of the Soviet Union? Of Britain and France, who were reeling economically and who were still struggling to maintain empires in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East? Of Latin American countries geographically isolated from most impending world crises, too poor and weak to make significant contributions to resolving them, and generally ruled by dictators?
Further, even if a respectable argument could be made for taking international consensus into account in a major way in American foreign policy-making, what’s the moral argument for deciding that the opinions and judgments of other government should always or usually trump that of the leaders elected by the American people? And what was the pragmatic argument for accepting this kind of system, given that the early postwar United States was amply capable of providing for its own security and prosperity?
Decades later, America’s relative power in world politics clearly has waned. But the nation is still more than able to ensure its safety and prosperity through its own devices, especially if it defines its major interests realistically. And who are the foreign intellectual and ethical paragons to which the U.S. government should defer today? Dictators like Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping? European leaders who keep shirking their appropriate share of the common western defense burden, and who are always happy to do business with rogue states in apparent confidence that American can always be trusted to deal with any dangers that emerge? Third world countries ruled by various kinds of autocrats and/or dependent on various forms of U.S. and other foreign aid?
Equally mysterious: How would Mr. Obama proceed to create a global legal system out of the chaos that exists today, and which his own words indicate has taken a turn for the worse lately? His rhetoric – including this speech – continually reveals a conviction that expelling power considerations from world politics would benefit all countries, even the large ones. But where is the evidence that he’s making converts? Is he considering setting an example by voluntarily yielding America’s prerogatives in the UN and other international organizations? Does he want the UN Secretary-General to serve as some kind of de facto or de jure world president? Does he have someone or something else in mind? And if, as appears, he has no blueprint, why should anyone take his words seriously?
But at least those questions are hypothetical. Another big question surrounding the president’s approach to foreign policy constantly comes up in the here and now, and needs to be answered satisfactorily for anyone to have any legitimate faith in his diplomacy: Does he recognize that mustering superior power and wealth is necessary for American success even in dealing with those threats he rightly noted “no nation…can insulate itself from”? From all appearances, the answer is “No,” and this failure to understand that national wherewithal must be available and applied even to meet shared global challenges raises the prospect that America’s legitimate interests will get rolled repeatedly.
Here’s why. It’s true that “the risk of financial contagion; the flow of migrants, or the danger of a warming planet,” and similar problems, potentially affect all countries, and create powerful incentives for cooperation. But the president seems to have no clear idea of how that cooperation gets created. Hopefully, he isn’t counting on some group of allegedly disinterested experts to come up with answers so brilliant that all governments will simply acknowledge their merits. It seems evident that he’s not counting on the rest of the world to believe that the United States will come up with ideal solutions on its own. So how does he propose to achieve any progress?
My distinct impression is that he has no such strategy here, either, and that he’s overlooking the reality that the highly diverse states that comprise the international sphere bring to all negotiations and other cooperative endeavors different historical experiences, cultural traditions, locations, and economic strengths and weaknesses. As a result, they (including the United States) inevitably are going to define acceptable, let alone ideal, outcomes from their national standpoint in equally diverse ways, at least much of the time.
The possibility of persuasion can’t be ruled out in world politics. But in those many instances where the force of American ideas is not sufficient to prevail at the bargaining table, and where American preferences matter, the force of American force – and wealth – will be vital for increasing the odds that solutions significantly reflect American interests and preferences. Therefore, whether sticks or carrots are used most often, it should be evident that those countries with the most wherewithal will be able to use those devices most effectively, and that consequently maximizing power in all of its usable dimensions needs to be among the nation’s top foreign policy priorities.
In a country with representative, accountable government, one of the most important functions that leaders can serve is educational – not in a high handed, lecturing sense, but in terms of identifying plausible, desirable objectives, the trade-offs involved in achieving or forgoing them, and the pluses and minuses of various available policy tools. With his oratorical gifts and his smarts, Mr. Obama’s potential to play this role was undeniable. That’s why it’s so tragic that he’s chosen, in so many of his big-think exercises in foreign affairs, to propagate myths and homilies that are not only gauzy and empty, but potentially dangerous.