April 6, 2014 6:47 pm

Obama’s attention deficit diplomacy

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Shared universal ideals have been supplanted by hard-nosed realism, but at a cost
Stars©Matt Kenyan

When Senator Barack Obama spoke in 2008 to adoring crowds in Berlin, he promised to “remake the world anew”. Nowadays he struggles to reassure alienated Germans he is not spying on their leaders. It may well be that no US president – however inspirational – could restore America’s traditional global leadership. The danger is not that China will supplant America as the underwriter of global stability – Beijing is not auditioning for that role. It is that under President Obama, and whoever succeeds him, the US will find the role ever harder to discharge. From the Urals to the South China Sea, the signs of waning US clout are mounting.

America’s latest “reality check” came last week with the near collapse of the Arab-Israeli peace process. Having bent over backwards to keep it on track and undertaken 12 visits to the region, John Kerry, US secretary of state, is not floundering for lack of effort. Nor, as is often rumoured, has he been hung out to dry by the White House. The truth is that the US has limited sway over either side. Mr Kerry only drew attention to the US’s weak leverage last week with his offer to release Jonathan Pollard, the Israeli spy, in exchange for a minimal commitment by Israel to keep things on track. The notion was quickly booed offstage.

The US’s success as a hegemon has traditionally been about magnifying its power through friendship. Yet its ability to rally existing friends behind it and make new ones to replace them is diminishing. Last month Mr Obama made his first visit to Brussels as president to try to galvanise Europeans following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea. His speech was well received, although it was not once interrupted by applause. Yet there is little sign that his visit succeeded in persuading Germany, Britain and others to take a radically tougher line on Russia. The US’s ability to contain Mr Putin will hinge on building a viable government in Ukraine. The odds of that happening remain poor. Nor did Mr Obama’s trip appear to breathe new life into the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership talks, as many expected. If the Russian wolf cannot unify the west, what can?

While its closest allies are getting weaker, the US is finding it hard to replace them with new ones. Mr Obama cannot be faulted for trying. Since taking office, he has made overtures to India, Brazil, Indonesia – and even Russia, during the brief period of Mr Putin playing second fiddle to Dimitri Medvedev, then Russia’s president. In most cases, the US has been either rebutted or ignored. Having begun his term in office in a flurry of idealism, Mr Obama has replaced that almost entirely with the language of pragmatism. Shared universal ideals have been supplanted by hard-nosed realism. Yet the shift has had little impact on outcomes.

Saudi Arabia continues to drift away from the US, which it believes is abdicating its leadership in the Middle East. India feels no obligation to support the US on the biggest issues – last month New Delhi defended Mr Putin’s right to amputate Crimea. Turkey, like the Gulf, is disgusted with Washington’s halfhearted response to Syria. And Pakistan, like Afghanistan, which held its first round of presidential voting at the weekend, is finding it increasingly easy to ignore Washington’s admonitions. Meanwhile, Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff cancelled her country’s first state visit to the US in 20 years in October in protest at the National Security Agency scandal. It is doubtful whether Germany’s Angela Merkel would accept such an invitation even it if were on offer.

Some of this can be blamed on Mr Obama’s attention deficit diplomacy. In his Brussels speech, he made no mention of the NSA scandal, even though that is behind much of Europe’s mistrust. And his efforts to put fresh momentum behind the TTIP were nominal at best. One senior European diplomat described Mr Obama’s private comments on the trade deal as “passive aggressive”. It is striking how often European officials speak warmly of George W Bush’s personal style, even though his pugilism was widely disdained. On the world stage, as in Washington, Mr Obama is reluctant to reach out beyond his narrow coterie of trusted advisers.

Some of the US’s waning clout can also be attributed to gridlock in Washington. Capitol Hill’s reluctance to give Mr Obama fast-track negotiating authority has crippled his ability to conclude serious trade deals. Mr Obama is likely to return empty-handed from Japan later this month, a trip that was initially billed as the moment when the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks would reach fruition. Likewise, Congress’s refusal to approve the next US subscription to the International Monetary Fund, which is linked to governance reforms negotiated by successive US administrations, has infuriated China, India and other rising powers. If the US cannot update the global institutions it created, they will continue to lose relevance.

But the problem goes far beyond any weaknesses of Mr Obama as president. Seventy years ago, the US imposed a set of global institutions on the world that enshrined its universal values. Today, Bretton Woods and the UN are fraying. No country, even the US, has the power to reinvent them. Whether the US is led by a multilateralist or a unilateralist, the values underlying them are also under challenge. The world is drifting back into a situation of assertive regional powers and a weakening hegemon. It is hard to believe that whoever replaces Mr Obama will have better luck in reversing the tide.

edward.luce@ft.com

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