Obama, Bush and America’s Limits

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The release of George W. Bush’s memoirs and his successor’s ten-day trip to Asia complemented each other in a sobering way this last week. Bush’s book, “Decision Points,” brought back the folly of his early unilateralism. At the same time, President Barack Obama’s troubled Asia trip showed the limits of America’s influence even when it tries to work with others.

If there was one philosophy that dominated the Bush administration’s early years it was the notion that the best way to preserve American power was to exercise it unilaterally. The more constraints the U.S. voluntarily acquiesced to, the weaker it would become, and by bucking international institutions and even abrogating existing treaties, America would strengthen our position. The prime advocates of this approach–Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Perle and John Bolton–were effectively arguing that might made right.

(See pictures of Obama’s trip to Asia.)

Plenty of American foreign policy experts disagreed, usually less on moral grounds than on practical ones: by shaping international institutions to our liking while we had the power, the multilateralists argued, we would ensure they served our interests when we were less influential. But back then it was hazardous for politicians to make that argument. The Romans, the Turks and the British may have eventually faded (none of them, incidentally, thanks to too much international cooperation), but any suggestion that America might not be number one forever was taken as passive acceptance of that fate (see, for example, Howard Dean’s politically ill-considered 2003 primary campaign assertion that, “We won’t always have the strongest military”).

Now the idea that we won’t be number one forever is more widely credited. One of the most-discussed ads of this last election cycle showed a fully risen China looking back in 20 years and laughing at our decline. A post-midterms CBS poll showed 62% of the country thinks it’s headed on the wrong track, with only 29% saying it’s going in the right direction. The theme of American decline has been a touchstone for Obama’s opponents during his two years in office. That malaise, real or imagined, combined with the “shellacking” Democrats took in the midterms, created a difficult set of expectations into which Obama would be walking on his Asia trip. A few perceived wins would have been welcome for him; losses were likely to make him, and the U.S., look worse than they might in other circumstances.

Managing perceptions on international trips is the job of White House, State department and sometimes Treasury department aides; somehow all managed to fail the president at a bad moment. Typically, staffers are assigned to manage negotiations for months before a bilateral or multiparty summit to ensure there are no surprises once the President arrives. The aides are supposed to figure out what can be achieved, precooking the agreements and writing them up beforehand. Then with a little stagecraft, the principles show up, pretend to do some last minute negotiations (or not), and sign a document, often an irrelevant one, but nevertheless a “deliverable.”

Expectations were not so expertly handled on Obama’s Asia trip. In an attempt to boost worker protections, Obama had reopened negotiations on a free-trade treaty with South Korea that Bush had been unable to advance through Congress. Obama had sworn to seal the deal on the trip, which didn’t help, but when troubles arose in the run-up the administration did not telegraph them, leaving expectations of success higher than they should have been. Likewise, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s public effort to get a G-20 deal on trade imbalances was thrown together rapidly and largely in public, leaving Obama without a safety net and facing headlines like this in the New York Times when it fell short of the American target.

Bungled expectations are short-term setbacks, and the administration is quick to argue that it may still have success on the South Korean deal or G-20 trade imbalances. But the reasons behind Obama’s failure to nail them down on a presidential trip abroad are more concerning. Obama, on his flight back to the U.S. Sunday, tried to play down the larger implications. “Sometimes because we’ve gone through a tough couple of years, there’s a tendency for us to think that somehow Asia is moving and we’re forgotten,” Obama said, “And in fact, I think everywhere in Asia, what I heard from leaders and people is that we are still central, and they want us there.” That may be, but the American president’s influence has clearly diminished in recent years: a more powerful America likely would have succeeded in tightening the trade deal with South Korea and might have convinced the G-20 to agree to fixed targets for limiting trade imbalances.

These failures take on a particular light against the backdrop of Bush’s memoirs. It would have been wise to seal these deals when the U.S. had more power to persuade other countries to agree to them. The U.S. is still by far the most powerful country on earth and is likely to stay that way for a long time to come: the markets’ confidence in U.S. treasuries and America’s continued economic and military power make that clear. But America is going through a cyclical waning of influence. Perhaps the experience will bolster arguments for multilateralism in the future.

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