The West, the Rest, and the New Middle East: Obama in London

This has been a week of big speeches. President Obama used his Middle East speech to paint a picture of the new realities in that region, and to forestall the Palestinian drive for statehood at the U.N. He partially succeeded on the first, and largely failed on the second. His blunt language about the symbolic emptiness of the Palestinian’s drive for statehood misread the mood in the Arab world and beyond. Then the second big speech of the week undercut his strategy. Israeli President Netanyahu scored rhetorical and political points with his energetic speech in Congress, after the Fatah/Hamas reconciliation gave him an opening. On derailing the Palestinian Authority’s drive to the U.N., he blew it. His proposal to the Palestinians – effectively, abandon your red lines, accept all of ours, and then we’ll think about negotiating a compromise – was so flagrantly unrealistic that it rapidly recharged the Palestinians and drove much of Europe, hesitant after the Hamas reconciliation, back to the Palestinian camp. As things stand, the United States and Israel are facing a diplomatic blowout at the General Assembly in September and the prospect of vetoing a Security Council resolution on statehood that will have overwhelming international support

Against the backdrop of Middle East maneuvers (and Midwest tragedies), much less notice will be paid to the third speech, President Obama’s to the U.K. Parliament. That’s a shame, because he was in fine form. This was a speech in the tradition of his Prague speech on nuclear disarmament, his Cairo speech on engagement with the Arab world, and his Nobel speech on the moral case for war: finely wrought, compelling arguments from a thoughtful president with an instinctive understanding of the changing world. His topic was international order – an order, he acknowledged that “has already been reshaped for a new century” by dramatic economic growth in countries like China, India and Brazil.

This was no apologia for western decline. Rather, the president emphatically rejected the notion that the “rise of the rest” undercuts western influence. He acknowledged that cooperation and global responsibility from the new powers will be essential to managing the economic and security threats in front of us. He made a better case here than he has before about why we should welcome, not fear, the rising economies – because “the prosperity of all nations is inextricably linked” and therefore “a new era of cooperation is required to ensure the growth and stability of the global economy.” Against a stale argument about whether the United States is now “leading from behind,” he acknowledged that U.S. leadership will have to change – to focus on building partnerships and adapting to the new realities of the time.

The president left no doubt, though, that the United States and the West remain central to managing the new global order. He was at his most compelling in arguing that “when threats and challenges require nations to work in concert with one another, we remain the greatest catalyst for global action.” Conceptually, that’s exactly right. There are more players on the global stage now, and U.S. relative power is not what it once was. The United States alone, however, retains the diplomatic reach to forge the alliances and catalyze the collective action necessary to navigate today’s globalized world. Brazil and India can drive initiatives in niche roles, but have only regional, not truly global clout. China has global economic reach, but its diplomatic strategy teeters between defensive and alienating, and nobody’s looking to China to take the lead on solving global problems. Other actors have important roles to play, he stressed, but only the democratic West can drive us to a new order that is “more peaceful, more prosperous, and more just.” (I’d tried my hand earlier at a tagline for strategy for the new international order, and came up with ‘forging cooperation, regulating competition, and managing conflict.’ No wonder I’m not a presidential speechwriter.) 

His argument is about to be put to a tough test. President Obama used the rest of his speech to re-re-cast developments in the Middle East in terms of their relationship to universal values, forged in Westminster and adopted in America’s own revolution. He did a better job in London than he had in Washington of acknowledging that the West bears its share of responsibility for the Middle East’s current ills through its long-time backing for dictators, and was more frank about America’s ongoing interests. Both elements will help reposition America to what he acknowledged is a skeptical Middle East. (A question for the White House communications team: why are the president’s overseas and UN speeches always so much better than his domestic ones?)

Can his Middle East strategy live up to the rhetoric of the London speech? Right now we’re watching two new orders being born: one global, one in the region. I’ve long argued that a critical test for the new global order is whether it can “manage” a turbulent challenge to regional order in the Middle East. Perhaps that was backwards. Better, rather, to ask whether the United States can forge the partnerships, build the alliances, and catalyze global action in the Middle East in a way that shapes the emerging order. In Libya, the United States did this very well in the first phase, marrying western military power to regional legitimacy and U.N. legal authority. Things look a little more dicey now, with NATO struggling to dominate one of the Arab world’s weakest armies, and tentative support from the emerging powers now abandoned.
America’s dominant role in the Middle East is challenged, but no new actor can hope to displace it. If the challenge is to help consolidate emerging democracies and kick-start stagnant economies, can the United States build the partnerships and alliances necessary to that challenge? The president was least convincing when he hinged the West’s continuing influence on its economic leadership – Asia’s money managers have a pretty strong rebuttal to that argument. His point was not cash, though; it was the model of free economics underpinning free politics and vice versa. Fair enough, but cash matters too – and Asia has lots of it, the West rather less. At international gatherings last week in Cairo and the Gulf, I heard the word “China” a lot more than the words “the West.” President Obama travels from London to the G8. Watch for the G8 to come up with a big number in pledges for the new Middle East; and then watch for next year’s G8 accountability report to try to mask the fact that most of that money hasn’t appeared.

More compelling would be precisely the kind “global catalyst” role the president’s speech called for. My colleague Salman Shaikh has noted that the United States lags in drawing in the diplomatic energies of the constructive middle powers in the region. Europe can create a pathway to free trade with the EU market that could do for the democratic process in the Middle East what the carrot of EU membership did for Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union. The Gulf has cash to spare; America’s pledge of $2 billion for Egypt in debt relief and investment guarantees has already been dwarfed by Qatar’s pledge of $10 billion. Brazil has grappled better than most with the kind of food price inflation and youth unemployment that are strangling North Africa’s economies, and could offer valuable advice. India and Indonesia and Turkey have roles to play in sharing the lessons from their own (still young) democratic transitions.

Only the United States can pull this into a collective effort, undergirding a fragile transition. By doing so, it can demonstrate what we have to gain from a changed international order. That’s what leadership will look like in the Middle East. The president’s London speech is as good a starting point as we’re likely to find. Now, his strategists should read it.