So a developing meme about our current president is that he’s not kickin’ enough “evil doer” butt….let’s call it the “politics of wuss.” He bows to the Saudi kings, he proclaims respect for the Persian empire, he’s going to allow my abuelita to visit her Cuban birthplace without restrictions, and he receives lefty books about colonialism in Latin America from dictators without using the text as a blunt instrument to beat Chavez for his insolence.
The right-o-sphere is appoplectic about this “politics of wuss.” They view it as a confirmation of an underlying relativism and moral ambiguity on the part of the president that will lead him to capitulate to, or be manipulated by, the dark forces in the geopolitical order. The left-o-sphere sees it as a “politics of dignity” welcome change in foreign policy towards a more cosmopolitan worldview where you respect other differences and listen to their concerns.
I see it as the politics of capacity building. The right is generally more enamored with a foreign policy in which you signal your intentions through force or the possibility of force, not through capitulation or admitting past wrongdoing. Critics on the right have criticized Obama’s approach to admitting past U.S. mistakes for not yielding immediate results from European allies during the latest G-20 summit.
Many on the right act as if foreign policy is a “one off” interaction rather than a set of repeated games in which actors learn from the interaction how to gain concessions from each other. Whereas the Bush administration’s approach to power was a “power over” approach where they sought to use their hegemonic world status to generate compliance from other state actors (see Pakistan, Turkey, etc.). The Obama administration is using a “power to” or “social production” approach where you distribute carrots in the hopes of building trust relationships with strategic actors that allow you to accomplish future goals. I’d argue that in a complex, hazy world where nations can form effective alliances without the United States, you’re better off going with a “power to” view of the world.
The interesting thing Obama is doing is that he is using “symbolic benefits” to build coalitions –”"power to.” While perhaps not as effective a “glue” for building relationships as material benefits, symbolic benefits are important. If nothing else, because it sets the conditions for other countries to go to their public for concessions that might be in the U.S.’ interest. The best part of symbolic benefits is that they are free…they cost nothing monetarily.
The general feeling on the right is that these symbolic appeals do cost something. It makes the U.S. appear weak or timid, as the very coiffed and masculine Mitt Romney opined. For these critics, there are only interests and at the end of the day, the way you appeal to leaders is to appear strong and stoic. Unbending. Unyielding in your position. Manly, if you will. No “power to” allowed, or the “evil doers” will pursue their interests of world domination or something of that ilk.
In my view, it is more naive to think that you are a hegemon when you aren’t than to admit mistakes and move forward on seeking common ground. Does Venezuela change its stance towards the US because Obama accepted a book from Chavez? Maybe not. But if the president’s response was to excoriate the dictator for deigning to bring up the subject of colonialism in the president’s majesterial presence, what exactly would that gain? Reactions like Newt Gingrich’s or Mitt Romney’s to the Obama/Chavez exchange are not some heroic call to steadfastness in the face of evil. Rather it is based on some intrinsic and dangerous sense of moral rectitude on the part of the right (don’t get me wrong….the left has it’s own moral rectitude problems). It’s an impulse that I can’t say I fully understand. It’s the impulse that drives fundamentalist parents to abandon a gay child because they are “sinning in the eyes of god.”
Personally, I think we’ve had a good long run of foreign policy being dictated by a “power over” approach. Let’s see how the “power to” works. Does tilling the field with “symbolic benefits” bear fruit by the end of Obama’s first term? Maybe not, but I’m pretty sure it will be better than where we’ve been.