Diplomacy in the Obama Administration

Stephen DeAngelis

January 21, 2009

With Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton poised to be the most notable of President Obama’s cabinet appointments, a lot of attention has been given to how new administration’s foreign policy might evolve. Having won the election by preaching a message of change and hope, people beyond the U.S. borders are waiting to hear a similar message. This is what the President said during his inauguration speech yesterday:

“The question before us [is not] whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control — and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our Gross Domestic Product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart — not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good. As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more. Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint. We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort — even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet. … As the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace. To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West — know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist. To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.”

In August 2006, just as the American presidential race was beginning to heat up, I wrote a post entitled The Need for Global Leadership. In that post, I wrote:

“Leadership vision is most poignant in times of instability and is most needed and most effective when providing guidance in times of rapid change and during and after war. … A grand vision that inspires action makes the global system much more resilient because it becomes the touchstone that helps keep the whole system on track. Current events have an uncanny ability to sidetrack plans and without a direction it’s difficult to know when you are off the right track. I’m reminded of the incident when Alice, lost in Wonderland, comes upon the Cheshire Cat sitting in the branch of a tree at a fork in the road. “Would you tell me please, which way I ought to go from here?” Alice asks. “That depends a good deal on where you want to go,” responds the Cheshire Cat. “I don’t much care where,” Alice replies. “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” the Cheshire Cat wisely asserts. But it does matter which way the world goes. The path the international community takes, determined by the vision it adopts, establishes the ordering principles around which the resources of the developed world can be mustered to benefit mankind. While some critics believe the nation-state is waning, its demise is overrated. The nation-state remains the primary driving force of the future. More states, not fewer, have been established over the past half century. Other new states (like one in Palestine) are likely to arise. The reason is that people believe that their interests and their security are best served by being governed by individuals who understand and appreciate their aspirations. … Hopefully, enough voices will be raised across the globe so that the efforts of world leaders can be channeled into finding the vision that will ignite the passions of rich and poor alike. Once ignited, however, those passions must be turned into actions that realign international organizations, array national resources in support, and improve the structural capacities of states so that they can assume control of the own future. Envision, plan, and implement. Without the vision you can’t plan. Without planning you can’t successfully implement.”

With the world now embroiled in a financial crisis that was just over the horizon in 2006, the need for global vision is more important than ever and the U.S. is still in the best position to help form it. New York Times‘ op-ed columnist Roger Cohen calls it a time for “Realism and Magic” [14 January 2009]. He offered his opinions in light of the confirmation hearings for Senator Clinton to become the next Secretary of State.

“So the next new thing is ‘smart power.’ The phrase was sprinkled through Senator Hillary Clinton’s confirmation hearing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It means using all the levers of influence — diplomatic, economic, military, legal, political and cultural — to get what you want. I’ve nothing against smart power, a blend of soft and hard. It’s better than dumb power, of which we’ve had a dose. Dumb power estranges friends, privileges force, undermines United States credibility and proclaims war without end. But what I want from the Obama administration is something more than Harvard-to-the-Beltway smarts. I want magical realism.”

“Magical realism” is not a term you’ll hear tossed about in many political science classes or the hallways of strategic think tanks. I think it’s close to what I called progressive realism in the aforementioned blog. The term does capture the need for vision and hope along with the necessity to see things for how they really are. It is the hope being ushered in by the new administration that Cohen hopes creates the magic.

“Seldom has so much hope confronted so much anxiety as in these … days before Barack Obama becomes the 44th president and the first African-American one. From the West Front of the Capitol, where he will be sworn in with Lincoln’s Bible beneath his hand, Obama will face Abraham Lincoln, who saved the Union in a war over slavery, and the spot where Martin Luther King gave his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. A fuller expression of American possibility at a time of American penury is hard to imagine. Obama will then move into the White House, which slaves helped build, facing the worst economic downturn since the 1930s. Reconciliation and transcendence and a reaffirmation of the mythology of American possibility vie with debt, doubt and depression. If they are poised in equal measure, which will prevail? One thing seems certain: The meltdown is going to hang over at least the first 18 months of the Obama presidency. The Treasury is bare. Americans are deluged in debt. Confidence has been Madoffed. That’s the realism. But this 47-year-old man of mixed race, whose very name — O-Ba-Ma — has the three-syllable universality of a child’s lullaby, has always had something of the providential about him, a global figure who looks more like the guy at the local bodega than the guys on dollar bills. That’s the magic. He needs this magic, which resonates in a voice with the solemn clarity of a bell. Smart power will not be enough. If it were, Americans would have elected Hillary Clinton president.”

Cohen acknowledges that hope played a major role in Obama’s election and that his ability to inspire and motivate is what attracted enough voters to secure him the nation’s highest office. He’s hoping those same traits prove sufficient to foster allies abroad.

“Americans intuited the imperative to reach beyond smartness for some ineffable quality, capable of unifying and inspiring at a time of national and global division. Inevitably, the nation is looking back to 1932. ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself,’ Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in his first inaugural, with the economy devastated by the Depression. He also said: ‘This nation asks for action and action now.’ Action followed — a torrent of legislation and speeches in the first 100 days designed to kick-start the country. Obama has been vowing a similar flurry, but has also been talking down expectations, saying things are going to get worse. That may be true, but he has to be careful. An excess of realism will undo him. … Americans’ thirst to be uplifted is great. Obama has to lay out a vision that goes beyond the war on terror and draws the partners of a re-imagined United States, less powerful but still indispensable, into a shared push for greater prosperity and security.”

Cohen is looking for the same inspired global vision I was calling for in 2006. The need for such a vision is even more critical now. Just as importantly, there are a lot more listeners eager to hear such a message. Cohen continues:

“When you’re down, you need friends. Clinton was right to say, ‘We must build a world with more partners and fewer adversaries.’ She might have added, especially in the Muslim world. A good starting point would be the realization that the very barrier-breaking technology that helped America to the zenith of its post-cold-war power has now democratized knowledge in ways the United States cannot control. The world view shaped in the Middle East by Al Jazeera is not amenable to Western logic. It has its own. Wealth has also migrated to an archipelago of new powers, including Brazil, Russia, China, India and the Gulf states. This scattering of power demands a new U.S. humility, but there is still no idea as compelling as the American embodied in Obama’s rise. Only if he can harness the magic of that to new realism can he summon the energy to overcome America’s crisis. Smart power alone cannot usher in the postponed promise of the 21st century.”

As bad as conditions currently are, I agree with Cohen that the promises of the 21st century have only been postponed and not broken. Because I’m an entrepreneur, I tend to meet and deal with a lot of other entrepreneurs from around the globe. As I’ve written before, as a class entrepreneurs are optimistic. They see opportunities amid challenges and always hold fast to the belief that they are going to succeed. It is that optimism that will fulfill the promises to which Cohen refers. He concludes:

“Gandhi, asked what he thought of Western civilization, replied, ‘I think it would be a good idea.’ Obama could do worse than place on his new desk the words of another Indian-born man, a novelist of magical realist power, Salman Rushdie: ‘This may be the curse of the human race. Not that we are so different from one another, but that we are so alike.'”

Those two notions — that people are mostly alike and should act in a civilized way — are two of the underlying principles that move globalization forward. Globalization only works because people, businesses, and governments agree to govern their activities using rules they have all accepted. They accept those rules because they understand that the world is a better place when we worth with and not against one another. Washington Post op-ed columnist David Broder discusses one of the “soft power” tools available in America’s kit that can help usher in some of the promises of the 21st century [“Diplomacy That Heals,” 15 January 2009]. He learned of these tools from people who normally would not be associated with diplomacy — the last two Secretaries of Health and Human Services, Tommy Thompson and Mike Leavitt.

“I was struck by the fact that one of [Leavitt’s] strongest recommendations [for incoming Secretary Tom Daschle] echoed something that Thompson had told me. When I interviewed him in January 2005, Thompson said he had developed a passion for ‘medical diplomacy.’ ‘I have traveled to 37 countries,’ he said, ‘helping deliver medicine for AIDS, malaria and other diseases. I dedicated a hospital for women and children in Kabul, Afghanistan. The gratitude of people for what America, with its wealth of medical talent, can bring is overwhelming.’ Four years later, Leavitt has reached exactly the same conclusion. As he told me, ‘The language of health is heard by the heart.’ In one of his summing-up reports, Leavitt spelled out the message: ‘Give a mother with HIV-AIDS hope that she can raise her children, and her gratitude will never wane. Heal a father’s child, and he will never forget. Give a teen with disfigured legs the mobility of a wheelchair, and he will praise your name forever. As Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said to me, “Health is a good messenger of peace.”‘

It’s obvious why soft power generally works better than hard power in winning the “hearts and minds” of those being helped. This is especially true when it comes to healthcare. It’s something that the NGO Doctors Without Borders has known for a long time.

“Leavitt said that since the Bush administration took office, overseas medical assistance financed by both government and the nonprofit sector has expanded markedly. But there is so much more that can and should be done. He points out that the Castro regime in Cuba and now Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez have dispatched doctors by the thousands to assist poor populations in Latin America. The United States could do so much more than those countries and, in the process, begin to reap the rewards that it deserves for its generosity. When two Republican Cabinet members who have seen the potential with their own eyes offer such a suggestion to the incoming Democratic administration, it’s probably worth listening to them.”

Even the U.S. military, the “hard power” in America’s kit, understands the value of soft power (see my recent posts Calculating the Worth of Cows and The Gift of Sight). One of Navy’s most effective efforts is carried out by the hospital ship USNS Mercy. The government of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao in the Philippines, still posts a press release on its official web site thanking the U.S. Government for sending the ship there back in 2006. The release states:

“Regional Governor Datu Zaldy Uy Ampatuan of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao expressed his deep appreciation to the government of the United States of America for sending to ARMM the USNS Mercy medical mission which he said is a big boost to the health services of the regional government. Ampatuan said the generosity of the US government to extend medical assistance to the indigent patients of ARMM clearly shows its concern to the needy people. ‘We thank the US government for this medical assistance and we look forward to have more cooperation with the US government in other areas of concern,’ he said.”

The Mercy is gratefully received wherever it sails. The United States sits on the cusp of an historic moment. There are challenges aplenty that require the cooperation and goodwill of the international community if the global economy is going to recovery and peace and stability provided to war-torn regions of the world. The current feeling of hope will soon be replaced by disappointment then anger if hope doesn’t result in effective action. None of the desired changes in the world will happen fast enough to make people happy. Having an inspiring global vision that can continue to spark hope, even when change comes slowly, is critical to managing expectations.