Tuesday, July 14, 2009

U.S. Foreign Policy and the "Reset" Myth

I was pondering the Obama-Clinton concept of doing a "reset" of various relationships. What this is basically saying is: let's start over again. But international relations is based on long-developing goals, interests, and history. You just don't make it go away just because a new family has moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Consider how the concept of resetting plays out in some specific cases:

U.S.-Russia relations. Russia's underlying grievance--which I'm not endorsing--is that it got rid of Communism and its empire and then adopted capitalism and democracy in the belief that the West would help it prosper. Instead, the country crashed in every respect from the decay of the social system to military weakness and economic devastation. When I was in Moscow I could see luxury stores and products from every country in the West--but not Russia--selling advanced products from everywhere in the West--but not Russia.

So to reset that relationship, the Russians might ask: "Where's my superpower status, dude?"

Then there's Iran. Iran's underlying grievance--which I'm not endorsing--is that Islam (Iran-style) does not rule the world. It is angry about perceived Western domination and Western-based globalization (it would be delighted with an Iran-based globalization). It wants Israel wiped out and the Arabic-speaking world suitably submissive to Tehran. It would like America to disapper and Western culture to shut up.

So to reset that relationship, the Iranian regime might ask: "Where's my regional (and maybe even global) domination, dude?"

In these two cases, and others, anti-Americanism is not just so much righteous indignation but a good rationale to get one's people raging against a foreign threat than the dictatorship back home. For a country like Cuba or Venezuela, North Korea or Syria, demonizing demagoguery takes the place of democracy, loathing instead of liberty or living standards.

David Axelrod has said that Obama makes anti-Americanism "uncool." I'm not sure what Mr. Axelrod's qualifications are for, to take one example, understanding how Egypt's regime uses the state-controlled media to foment anti-Americanism in order to stay in power while simultaneously getting $2 billion a year in U.S. aid. But then its leaders hosted and cheered Obama's speech about the greatness of Islam while knowing that local Islamists wanted their heads cut off, consequently arresting thousands of them on a regular basis

Having co-authored a book about the history of anti-Americanism since the 1750s (that's no typo) and shown the remarkable consistency of these themes--Hating America: A History--I can tell you that things have changed far less than people think, both with George W. Bush and now with Barack H. Obama. (Of course, that doesn't mean that poll results don't go up and down, but then they always do.)

So in regard to any reset that relationship, these regimes might assert: "No resetting, please, we're authoritarians!"

What about Western Europe? That's a bit different as these governments are eager for a reset. Basically, they want (of course, there are many individual distinctions) the United States not to bother them with any demands. And of course, Obama's tune of apology and equality is music to their ears. But the problem here is that while the U.S. president can certainly get them to love him, he can't get them in any major way to follow him.

Also, once a president starts either doing or not doing something--one or the other option is pretty inevitable--the popularity starts melting away. This can already be seen in European media coverage of Obama. He's seen as being either too naive or too much like Bush.

Oh, and all those old cliches about an overweight, undercultured, excessively violent America are still in place too.

So even those most in love with the idea would say: Resetting means the United States doing everything we want and not doing anything we don't want. Oh, and we don't all want the same thing!

It's no accident that there has never been an administration before whose foreign policy was based on saying: Forget about that last guy. Let's start over!

There are some indeed besotted with resetting,
but as a foreign policy success? I wouldn't be betting.

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