On July 10, 2010, Brookings President Strobe Talbott delivered the annual Ditchley Foundation Lecture, held at the Ditchley Foundation in the United Kingdom.
Thanks, George [Robertson]. This may be your first time chairing a Ditchley Lecture, but it’s not the first time that I’ve been under your chairmanship. I had that pleasure on several occasions, about ten years ago, when you were the Secretary-General of NATO and I was at the State Department, and before that when you were Minister of Defence. Despite the weighty issues we were dealing with, one of the many things I enjoyed about working with you was that you brought a sense of fun—that is, enjoying yourself—even when you were tending to the most serious business. That’s probably something that I can only say to you now that you are out of political harm’s way.
As for Jeremy, I’ve known him quite a bit longer; and I’ve admired him in the series of posts that he has held in London, in Washington, in New York, and of course, in particular, during his reign here at Ditchley. Therefore I enthusiastically add my own voice to the chorus of tributes this weekend to Jeremy’s career, which he described last night as being one spent in “diplomacy and para-diplomacy”. Along with all of you, I admire the grace, the discipline, the sense of purpose, and the quality of discourse that he and Anne have brought to these premises. I’m sure I’m one of many people here who have reason to appreciate the Greenstocks’ genius for friendship. They have made this place very family-friendly. In fact, the Ditchley community is very much of a family itself.
Now, as all of you know, early in his professional life, Jeremy was a school master. Once a teacher, always a teacher. From time to time I have been his student—most recently, back in February, when he sent me an e-mail with a homework assignment. I’m here to turn it in and submit to my viva. (The last time I had that experience was 39 years ago, down the road at Oxford).
The title of record—which is in your program and on the invitation—is “Obama and the World.” On some reflection, I’m going to suggest a few amendments to that. For example, the title perhaps might more properly be “Obama, America, and the World.” That is for the following reason. Granted, whoever is the president of the United States, he—or one of these days she—matters a lot, as a force in the world. But so does what’s happening in America more generally, including in the public response to the president’s plans and exhortations.
At present in the United States, there is a tension between the aspirations of the current president and the anxieties of many of his constituents. Recent surveys show that President Obama’s job-approval rating is about 48 percent—and that is a 20-percent drop from where it was just after his inauguration, and more ominously from a political standpoint his standing among registered Independents is down to 38 percent. This spells trouble for President Obama as he tries to muster the necessary public and congressional support for his ambitious programs during the remainder of his time in office.
Hence the listed subtitle of this talk: “A Promise at Risk?”. And as George pointed out, Jeremy and I put a question mark after that phrase back in February. That was partly out of prudence, because just at that point the marathon shouting match over health care reform seemed finally to be coming to an end. Congress was close to passing the most comprehensive social legislation since Lyndon Johnson signed Medicare into law 45 years ago.
But, with the exception of that considerable accomplishment, the subsequent five months have been heavily laden with difficulties for the president and his administration. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which we’ll probably come back to in the discussion period, is only one example.
Furthermore, there’s evidence that the troubles that President Obama is having in mastering the politics of his own country are beginning to erode hope and confidence in him elsewhere. I’m hearing that both back at home and when I’m on the road. I spend a lot of time in Washington with colleagues on Embassy Row and with foreign visitors; and I’m on the road a lot myself. This is my second trip to the UK—and my second trip to Oxfordshire—in the last fortnight (such is the lure of Ditchley). On both those trips, whenever the subject, as it often does, turns to what is going in America and how Obama is doing, I’ve been struck by how often I’ve heard the word “disappointment.” It came up over dinner in the [Ditchley] library last night. I’ve also heard from members of the Obama administration that the growing impression of presidential weakness in Washington threatens to hinder the president’s ability to exert strong influence in other capitals.
So, Jeremy, I think we can drop the question mark after the subtitle and even, perhaps, change it to an exclamation point: Obama’s promise is indeed at risk, at home and abroad.
What I propose to do in these remarks is to discuss the promise, then the risk, and then the prospects for Obama’s being able to manage the risks, overcome the obstacles, and live up to at least some of the many hopes that so many around the world had for him and in many many cases still have for him.
So first, the promise.
Let’s start with what happened on Election Day, Tuesday, November 4, 2008. That event was doubly promising.
There was what it said about America and how far it has come in living up to its founding ideals—and, in particular, what might be called the “equality clause” that rings out from the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence.
There was also what the election said about the self-described “skinny black man with a funny name” who soundly defeated John McCain, a four-term Senator—a true war hero, with a long record of moderation and considerable experience in foreign and national-security policy.
Let me address the question of race in this election, not least because it relates to the worldview that Barack Obama brought to the presidency and to the diplomatic strategy that he’s pursued over the last year and a half.
Racism is still very much a part of American life. It’s a legacy of the great stain on our national history—slavery. Lots of smart people—many of them liberals and optimists—felt, indeed feared, in their gut, that the color of Barack Hussein Obama’s skin—never mind his name—would, all by itself, be enough to keep him from ever making it to the White House.
The American people—in their enfranchised aggregate—proved that presumption wrong. That was much to their credit.
But Obama helped them do so. He did it in the way that he introduced himself to the voters, and then kept re-introducing himself to them as they paid more and more attention to him during the course of that seemingly endless campaign.
One way that politicians become presidents in America is by making their personal stories inspiring subplots of the great American story. Think of Honest Abe the rail-splitter, Teddy Roosevelt the Rough Rider, JFK the skipper of PT-109, Ronald Reagan as “The Gipper,” and Bill Clinton as “the Man from Hope.”
In one respect, Obama’s winning strategy was of a piece with that standard technique of presidential campaigning. His life story was absolutely central to his success.
But the story he told was deliberately, dramatically, and almost defiantly different. In fact, it was all about difference. He played up everything in his origins and his formative years that made his story not a typical American story. Nor was it anything like a typical African-American story. Obama is not the descendant of slaves who crossed the Atlantic in chains two centuries ago. Rather, he is the son of a restless, striving young Kenyan (a protégé of Tom Mboya’s, no less) who came on a scholarship to America in the 1960s—to Hawaii, our most kaleidoscopically diverse state, where he met Obama’s mother in (how’s this for a last touch?) a Russian-language class.
Obama was, therefore, not so much a product of the American heartland (although he did have Kansas in his background too) as he was a product of a new, demographically dynamic, globalized America—an America that was changing. What’s more, in 2008, it was a country whose people wanted more change—they were also, partly by virtue of their increasingly eclectic origins, more open to other parts of the world.
Barack Obama identifies himself as a “citizen of the world.” This is a phrase that comes with a safety warning for American politicians. You may recall that it was also the phrase that Socrates used about himself—and that the powers that be of Athens then used in putting him to death for treason. In the American political vocabulary today, particularly in certain provinces of cyberspace, it is a phrase that suggests at least goo-goo one world-ism if not something worse, like sedition.
President Obama is not the first to call himself a citizen of the world. Jack Kennedy did so, and Ronald Reagan did too. But, Obama is our first president to have proclaimed himself a citizen of the world before he was elected. Moreover, he did it on foreign soil, at the Tiergarten in Berlin in July 2008. The venue was part of his message: he was campaigning for the leadership of his own nation by demonstrating his appeal to, and identification with, people of other nations, regions and cultures.
One other point about his background that I think is germane to the present and the future. Back in the early 1980s, when Obama was in his 20s, he worked as a community organizer in Chicago. On several occasions during his campaign he cited that experience at a local level as teaching him lessons that are, or should be, applicable globally—useful, that is, to the ongoing cause of better organizing the community of nations in an increasingly interdependent world.
That concept lies at the heart of Obama’s theory of the case for American foreign policy. It starts from the premise that there has been a profound transformation in the nature, distribution, and interaction of power in the world.
For the first time in human history, the major states are all at peace with one another. That’s the most important—and often under-recognized—good news of our time. And it gets better. To an unprecedented degree, those major states are collaborating in the search for ways to translate common interests into collective action, and to concert their resources and coordinate their policies in dealing with threats that they cannot manage on their own.
Those threats tend to come from weak or failed states, not strong ones. Or they come from non-state actors—international NGOs of the most malignant sort, Al-Qaeda being the most notorious example but by no means the only one. Or they come from potentially disastrous natural consequences of human activity.
Taken together, these defining characteristics of our age require more emphasis and more effective reliance on diplomacy, partnerships, alliances, coalitions of the willing, and international norms and institutions.
In developing this theme during the campaign, Obama stressed two challenges above all others: the unraveling of the global nuclear nonproliferation regime and climate change. On several occasions he referred to these two threats jointly as the reason why the Earth is “a planet in peril.”
The imperative of holding that peril at bay constitutes the most compelling argument for improving the practices and mechanisms of global governance. Philip Stephens, who is here this afternoon and serves as a trustee of the Ditchley Foundation, had a sobering column on that subject just over a week ago. Philip wrote that global governance is going through a rough patch, adding—based on what he’d heard on a trip to Washington—that President Obama did not find the Toronto meeting of the G-20 an edifying or encouraging experience.
Both those assertions are true. But so is the following. It is hard to imagine an American president more committed than the present incumbent in the Oval Office to the need for effective global governance.
Now, you have not heard Barack Obama use that phrase, and I doubt that you will, since—rather like “citizen of the world”—it raises hackles and suspicions among many Americans for whom it has connotations of world government and black helicopters. So rather than stir up that hornets’ nest with the semantics of the idea, he is pushing the idea itself. He talks about “strengthening our common security by investing in our common humanity.” That’s his way of reaffirming America’s role as a designer and builder of global and regional cooperative structures to buttress international peace and prosperity.
I say “reaffirming” because this concept goes back at least to the presidencies of Wilson, both Roosevelts, Truman, and Eisenhower. It got a post-cold war boost from George Herbert Walker Bush and a further one from Bill Clinton.
The unilateralism of George W. Bush was something of an aberration. But in his second term, the junior President Bush tacked back toward multilateralism. For example, on his way out the door of the White House, President Bush convened the first meetings of the G-20 and what has become known as the Major Economies Forum.
President Obama inherited those innovations, and he has tried to build on them, although with some exasperation in Toronto a couple of weeks ago and, of course, in Copenhagen last December.
However—and now my remarks shift into a distinctly minor key—when President Obama moved into the Oval Office, he also inherited from the previous occupant the In-Box from Hell.
The war in Afghanistan was already a disaster. It had been going from bad to worse for six years—with onerous consequences in civilian and military lives lost, not just for the U.S. but for our allies, and very particularly the United Kingdom. In addition, he found himself on Day One confronted with a pair of dangerous dilemmas over how to deal with the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea, and he also faced the task of trying to breathe life into what seemed to be, and some would say still seems to be, a moribund Middle East peace process.
And on top of all that, there were the two existential threats that he had highlighted in his campaign and made priorities for his presidency: nuclear proliferation and climate change.
Put all this together, and I think it’s a defensible proposition that none of Obama’s 43 predecessors came into office facing a welter of comparably tough global problems of this multitude, magnitude, urgency, complexity—and consequence.
Yes, his hero Lincoln had a rather full plate waiting for him in the White House in 1861, but it was essentially one plate, taking up the entire table. And while the nation was in mortal peril, the planet did not yet so qualify.
Now, as I’m sure you’ve all noticed, I haven’t even mentioned the No. 1 problem that Obama faced as president-elect: the near-collapse of the international financial system. That crisis probably contributed to the success of Obama’s campaign for the presidency, since he handled it a good deal better than Senator McCain did; but it sure didn’t help his ability to succeed in office. In fact, the aftershocks of the 2008 economic earthquake, with its epicenter on Wall Street, have been the single most important factor that has put the Obama promise—and, indeed, the Obama presidency—at risk.
He saw that danger early on. A couple of days after the election, he met with his economic team for a full briefing on the severity of what had already happened and the calamities that, absent bold action, might lie ahead. After pondering the nightmare scenario that was laid out for him, Obama asked his advisers if perhaps it wasn’t too late to ask for a recount of the election returns.
I mention that anecdote—which Obama recounted publicly at Brookings—because it underscores a point of view that all of us have heard, and some of us have expressed: namely, that Obama’s main problem is one of having created unrealistically high expectations of what he could do and how quickly he could do it.
Well, he didn’t have lofty and rosy expectations. In his Grant Park victory speech and in his inaugural address, he warned us that there were going to be big problems, that there were going to be no easy solutions to those problems—and that he was going to make mistakes in his own efforts to deal with them. Those promises he’s kept (and I’ll come to the mistakes a bit later).
However, mercifully, the worst-case scenario for the world economy that seemed all too plausible from the fall of 2008 into the winter of 2009 has not come to pass. We weren’t just lucky. Our leaders—many leaders, but Obama certainly included—were smart. But he gets virtually no political credit with the American people for his role in pulling the world back from the brink of a second Great Depression, or even for easing the Great Recession. That’s in large measure because the recovery we’re experiencing in the United States is not just fragile—it’s largely a jobless recovery. The anemic unemployment statistics that we’ve seen in recent weeks reflect hardship and anxiety on the part of citizens who are soon about to be voters again. Therefore they portend acute political vulnerability for a sitting president and the party that he heads, which is technically in control of the Congress.
Now, why do I say “technically in control”? It’s because, in fact, Obama’s party does not control the Congress. That’s for several reasons. There’s a widespread perception in the U.S. that the president and the Democrats who benefited from his coattails in 2008 have not delivered on their promise of change. Many Americans look at Washington and they see a continuation of the mess that Obama ran against—gridlock, partisan warfare, entrenched special interests. The result, in the country at large, is a combination of disaffection, frustration, and often anger at the man who promised to be the change-agent-in-chief.
As for the Republicans, they sense that they’re in tune with a sour, throw-the-bums-out mood in the country as a whole; that they can attract registered Independents who voted for Obama two years ago; and that they’re well positioned to score big in the midterm elections. That makes them all the less inclined to give the president and his party anything that looks like a victory, on any issue.
The perversity of this situation is that it gives many (though not all) Republicans an incentive to prevent effective governance so that they can blame the president and party in power for its absence and thereby hasten the day when they can take over.
For their part, the Democrats are, by and large, a pretty sorry lot. As a political species, they remind me of the most famous donkey in English literature: Eeyore, whose gloominess tried the patience even of Christopher Robin.
In addition to being dispirited, the Democrats are disorganized. Again, that’s in marked contrast to the Republicans, who are as disciplined as they are exuberant—although not so much in promoting their own solutions to the nation’s problems as in trying to thwart the president from advancing his program.
Aside from these differences between the two parties, there is a peculiarity in our version of the parliamentary system that can cause the near-paralysis of federal government. This is the requirement in the Senate of sixty votes out of a hundred to block a crippling filibuster on virtually any piece of legislation.
When it comes to passing treaties, the concept of a supermajority is written into the Constitution itself, since ratification requires the support of two-thirds of the Senate. The new strategic arms treaty that President Obama has signed with President Medvedev would be the first such pact ever to be ratified under a Democratic president. Yet in part for exactly that reason—that is, to keep Obama from, as they say in Washington, “putting points on the board”—a number of Republican senators are trying to slow the treaty down if not stop it.
Let me now turn to another impediment to legislative action of the kind that is necessary for President Obama—and I would say, for the United States of America—to succeed in meeting the current challenges facing the country and the world. It will have a familiar ring here in the UK. It’s the delicate and difficult matter of how to stimulate the economy while maintaining fiscal responsibility over the long run.
To underscore how seriously this matter is taken in Washington right now, let me tell you what Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said when he came to Brookings back in May. After giving us a tour of the horizon—touching on Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and North Korea—the first question that Admiral Mullen got from the floor was: “What problem, above all others, keeps you awake at night, Mr. Chairman?” Without a moment’s hesitation he astonished us with a curt answer.
The No. 1 threat to the country, he said, is the national debt, which is on a trajectory to exceed our Gross Domestic Product within 15 years.
It is highly unusual for a senior military official to identify an economic issue as the principal security threat to the nation. When asked to elaborate, Admiral Mullen cited China’s massive holding of U.S. Treasury bills. Keep in mind that he is a former chief of Naval Operations who, for much of his career, has kept a wary eye on the balance of hard power in the Pacific. That’s part of the context for his unease that the United States is in hock to a country that is, by any standard, on the rise geopolitically as well as geo-economically—and whose interests are not, and never will be, entirely compatible with our own.
But Admiral Mullen’s more general point concerns not so much the growing strength of China. Rather, he’s worried about the looming weakness of the United States if it fails to define and defend its interests—and, I would say, ensure its solvency—with an eye to the future.
There are some indications that many Americans are waking up to this danger. A colleague of mine at Brookings, the political scientist Bill Galston, believes that the awareness of the damage that long-term deficits can do is actually having the effect of “nudging U.S. public opinion toward greater acceptance of the need for fiscal austerity.” Bill can even imagine that Americans and their representatives in Congress might eventually, and probably reluctantly, accept revenue increases, linked to fundamental tax reforms, as part of a grand bargain between the two parties to stabilize the nation’s finances. In short, Bill believes that movement in that direction may, down the road, create the political predicate for the kind of budgetary shift the UK has experienced in the wake of its own recent general election.
For all kinds of reasons, it would be heartening to see American leaders and citizens alike focus not just on the security of our nation today but on the wellbeing of our children and grandchildren. Let’s hope that happens sooner rather than later, since the principle of trans-generational responsibility needs to be more than a virtuous platitude. It must become an operational part of civic attitudes and political action, and a trump factor in our national debate.
That’s crucial not just for meeting the national challenge of reducing rogue deficits, but for meeting the ultimate global challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
That brings me back to these bucolic surroundings and the excellent discussions that take place here. Climate change was the subject that Jeremy chose for his last Ditchley Conference just a few weeks ago. The title he assigned to the discussion—a bit like the one that he suggested for my remarks today—posed a question: “Can the multilateral system manage climate change?” But in the course of the two days of discussion, we found ourselves constantly circling back to a prior question: can national systems get their own acts together as a necessary precondition for getting their collective act together?
Clearly, the U.S. is key, given a trio of superlatives. It is the world’s largest economy, the world’s No. 1 consumer of energy, and, cumulatively, far and away the No. 1 emitter of greenhouse gases. I believe that the single most consequential drama playing out in Washington right now—with implications for the entire world and, if I would even put it this way, for the entire future—is the effort on the part of the administration and some members of the Senate, including, to their credit, a few Republicans, to pass a bill that takes the first step toward putting a price on carbon as well as toward establishing national targets and a basis for emission-trading.
Unless the United States finally commits itself to federally legislated mandates for greenhouse gas reductions, it is hard to imagine the international effort getting traction of any kind on that issue and certainly in anything like the timeframe necessary to bend those two closely linked curves of greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.
There is a similar fight brewing in the U.S. Congress on the issue of nuclear proliferation, and the stakes are comparably high. I mentioned earlier the current debate over whether the Senate will ratify the so-called New START treaty with the Russian Federation. Even if that pact becomes the law of the land, which I suspect it will, the argument over it may have served its opponents’ purposes by laying the ground for a full, fierce assault against the administration’s determination to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. If, next year, the U.S. Senate repeats the horrendous mistake it made 11 years ago by rejecting the CTBT, it will severely damage the prospects for stopping the spread of nuclear weapons.
So we here have two issues that, as Obama has said repeatedly, imperil the planet, and they’re both coming to a head on the calendar of the U.S. Congress between now and the 2012 presidential election. These two issues pose a test not just for the U.S. government, not just for American democracy—but a test of the idea and institution of democratic governance itself. What a cruel, even fatal irony it would be if this system and philosophy of governance that we’re so proud of—democracy—were to empower the tyranny of short-term and short-sighted expedients over long-term imperatives relating to the survival of the human enterprise. (This, by the way, is a point that Jeremy made eloquently in his summing up of the climate discussion in the Ditchley Library last month.)
If nations like ours, and particularly mine, fail, in the months and years immediately ahead, to act with far more prudent foresight than they have done so far, then there is quite simply very little hope for meaningful global governance, which—as I said at the outset—is, essentially, the overarching theme of the Obama foreign policy.
Now, having discussed the risks that the American President faces, I should touch upon the question of his own share of responsibility for the problems that beset his presidency.
I share the view of many who, on the one hand, give him credit for succeeding where six predecessors failed to reform healthcare, but who nonetheless, on the other hand, fault him for how long it took and how debilitating the battle was. He over-delegated the content and management of the bill to Congress, inviting delays and wrangling that seemed all too familiar to a citizenry that wanted to see change.
Then of course there’s Afghanistan. While there’s much to discuss and there are many people here to discuss it and there’s certainly much to lament about the situation there, the president may have made the mission harder to fulfill by setting a deadline for the beginning of withdrawals next year. That could very well encourage our enemies to wait us out and sow doubts about our resolve and reliability among those Afghans who are, in varying degrees and in some sense, on our side, as well as among the Pakistanis.
As for the economy, I indicated earlier my view that, overall, Obama deserves higher marks than he is likely to get from voters in November for grappling with the crisis. But, once again, he has made his own job harder by gratuitously demonizing and antagonizing much of the American business and financial community. The animosity towards him in those quarters is not only politically damaging to Obama, given that there are a lot of big donors to his 2008 campaign who now feel betrayed—it could also be economically harmful. Why? Because many business leaders may be reluctant to make the investments necessary to generate new jobs in what they consider to be a hostile political environment.
While we’re on the subject of the extent to which Obama is a source of his own problems, I might comment on the rising perception that what had been two of his most celebrated assets—his temperament and his intellect—are actually liabilities. By temperament, I’m referring to his famous “cool,” the quality reflected in his nickname: “no-drama-Obama.” Some critics now believe that this quality has begun to work against him; that on several issues and in several ways it has hampered his ability to convey to the American people a sense of empathy with their distress. In a nutshell, “cool” can sometimes come across as cold.
As a variant of that critique, there’s a growing view that the downside of Obama’s capacious intellect is that he is sometimes—how to put it?—too intellectual, further distancing himself from the real world and the real people who live there. Jon Meacham, the editor of Newsweek (and who is no slouch intellectually himself), has criticized Obama for coming across—and I’m not making this up—as sounding “more like the president of the Brookings Institution than the president of the United States.”
How’s that for killing two birds with one stone? In addition to saying “ouch!,” I don’t buy the point that Jon is making. I certainly don’t buy the invidious comparison. I think that, generally speaking, it has been a big plus that Obama treats his national—and international—audiences as thoughtful adults who are capable of handling ideas and reality in their complexity.
I’ll cite one example, and it goes back to the subject of how he has handled the race issue. In March 2008, Obama faced an extreme danger to his nomination because of the eruption of controversy over his long association with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who was suddenly all over TV, particularly Fox News, as well as YouTube with fire-and-brimstone sermons on the inequities and indignities that come with being black in America. Obama responded by delivering, in Philadelphia, a textured, probing, balanced, and—yes—cool speech that essentially detoxified the issue both for himself and for many who listened carefully to what he said. And many did. And it worked politically and intellectually.
The confidence that he displays both