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Published on: September 28, 2011
Dissing: The Sincerest Form Of Flattery

It feels like the bad old days of the Bush administration as the whole world lines up to criticize American leadership — or the lack thereof. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble said the US-backed idea to leverage the EU bailout fund so that the same amount of money could bail out bigger debt disasters was […]

It feels like the bad old days of the Bush administration as the whole world lines up to criticize American leadership — or the lack thereof.

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble said the US-backed idea to leverage the EU bailout fund so that the same amount of money could bail out bigger debt disasters was “a folly” and that the US should butt out of Europe’s business.

Wolfgang Schäuble (Wikimedia)

The UK Telegraph newspaper quotes him as saying that “It’s always much easier to give advice to others than to decide for yourself. I am well prepared to give advice to the US government.” In other words, physician heal thyself: get the US budget and trade deficits under control, Mr. President, and we’ll have a nice quiet talk about smart economic policy.

Schauble is not alone in taking on the US.  Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli PM Netanyahu both took tough stances against President Obama. As the NYT reported on Sunday:

…President Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, returned to a hero’s welcome here [Ramallah] on Sunday…

…Thousands greeted Mr. Abbas at his office headquarters, waving flags, shouting oaths of loyalty and holding aloft his photograph. Mr. Abbas, a withdrawn figure who lacks charisma, is enjoying a wave of popularity for standing up to Washington over the membership application and delivering a tough speech at the United Nations on Friday.

Similarly, despite the new show of harmony over President Obama’s pledge to veto any UN Security Council resolution on Palestinian statehood, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu continues to enjoy the support of his more conservative coalition partners, like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, for resisting American calls for a settlement freeze.  To underline the point, Israel announced yesterday that it was approving plans for 1,100 new housing units in the sections of Jerusalem Israel annexed after the 1967 war and ruled out a new settlement freeze on the West Bank.  This was not the nicest possible way to thank President Obama for going out on a limb for Israel at the UN.

China has attacked the US decision to provide Taiwan with new weapons and frozen some military contacts in retaliation; in the face of firm Russian and Chinese opposition the UN Security Council has backed away from US-backed proposals for tough new sanctions against Syria in favor of a vague and toothless warning; Turkey continues to roil the eastern Mediterranean with an increasingly vocal anti-Israel stance and threats against Cypriot plans for offshore drilling.

In almost every case, these leaders are winning public support at home by thumbing their noses at the US administration.  Schäuble gets credit for standing up to US pressure; Abbas has transformed himself (perhaps briefly) into a Palestinian hero for defying the US.  Erdogan, Putin, Wen Jiabao: whether democratically elected or not, they all stand to gain at home by resisting perceived US pressure and “standing up” for the home team against President Obama.

Much of the German press rallied, for example, to Schäuble’s support.  Wrote Bild, “Obama’s lecture on the euro crisis … is overbearing, arrogant and absurd … In a nutshell, he is claiming that Europe is to blame for the current financial crisis, which is ‘scaring the world.’ Excuse me?” (H/t, and thanks for the translation, to a valuable site bookmarked on the WRM home computer, Spiegel Online International.)

This is bitterly frustrating and perhaps a bit embarrassing for the world’s cat-herder-in-chief.  The “new look” Obama foreign policy doesn’t seem to be winning the US all that much more cooperation abroad than the “old look” policy under President George W. Bush.  Republicans may be tempted to launch an attack on the White House for losing allies and failing to lead the world; there might be some poetic justice in this considering Obama’s harsh rhetoric about his predecessor, but it would also be hollow political opportunism.

While administration missteps, most notably on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, have contributed to the current atmosphere, there is nothing new about some of these problems.  It has been decades since Europeans welcomed US advice about their economic problems.  German chancellors since Konrad Adenauer have regularly roasted the US for what they see as our national addiction to budget deficits and fecklessly loose monetary policy.  China has never liked our support for Taiwan, and the current brouhaha is mild by historical standards and looks more pro-forma than in-depth.  A newly democratic and assertive Turkey is running through the eastern Mediterranean like a bull in a china shop, but this has less to do with anything President Obama has done than with long term trends in Turkey itself.

Since the end of the Cold War, world politics and the global economy have been gradually moving away from the (relative) stability that characterized the 1945-1990 era.  That post World War Two era was unusual by the standards of modern history.  Financial crashes and depressions were a regular feature of life from the Dutch Tulip Bubble of the seventeenth century right through the Great Depression.  International politics were turbulent and tumultuous as well, with countries switching alliances and stabbing one another in the back with great gusto and regularity.

Hendrik Gerritsz Pot’s allegory of the Dutch tulip mania. The goddess of flowers is riding along with three drinking and money weighing men and two women on a car. Weavers from Haarlem have thrown away their equipment and are following the car. The destiny of the car is shown in the background. (Wikimedia)

The exhaustion of Europe, China and Japan after World War Two, and the bipolar rivalry between the nuclear superpowers, froze world politics through the end of the Cold War. The macroeconomic tools and tightly regulated national banking systems developed during and after World War Two made for greater economic stability until the world economy gradually outgrew the post-war system and financial and trade globalization created a new and much more volatile economic system that is still poorly understood.

These days every government on earth, democratically elected or not, faces huge political pressure.  Newly empowered public opinion is more demanding than ever, but the economic and political environment of every country is more volatile than ever.  Under those circumstances, politicians are looking to blame foreign forces for unpleasant conditions while appealing to populist sentiments.

That leaders around the world find President Obama and the country he leads such a useful target for insults and such a useful scapegoat when things go wrong is, in a perverse — and from a US point of view, somewhat unpleasant — way, a form of flattery.  The United States is being so widely attacked because it matters so much.  Germany does not attack Indian leaders who criticize its economic policies; Netanyahu does not spend a lot of time thinking up new ways to demonstrate his independence from Brazil.

American foreign policy faces many challenges around the world today, but irrelevance is not one of them.  It is more fun to be loved than to be criticized, and more satisfying to be silently obeyed than publicly defied, but President Obama remains the world’s cat-herder-in-chief, and the US remains the most important international actor in a fractious world.

The real challenge the United States faces is to develop a new kind of strategy for a more fluid and tumultuous world.  This was true during the Bush administration and it is true today.  Many Democrats wasted precious time and intellectual energy between 2001 and 2008 blaming Bush for all the world’s ills rather than developing a realistic new strategy for a changing world; Republicans risk making the same mistake today, throwing stones at the White House rather than carefully thinking through the state of the world.

Foreign policy is never easy; it is going to be harder than ever to get it right in the next few years.  Interesting times — the question is, can we live up to them?

show comments
  • John Barker

    “Many Democrats wasted precious time and intellectual energy between 2001 and 2008 blaming Bush for all the world’s ills rather than developing a realistic new strategy for a changing world. . .”

    I fear that Mr. Obama is the still the chief Bush-blamer and this stance is passed down to his supporters. I usually hear Bush this and Bush that when talking to Democrats. I am not a party loyalist; I just want better ideas in play. In the pages of Via Meadia, I am finding the intellectual support that may lead to a better approaches to our problems.

  • Kenny

    Do you know how to stop the nations of the world from criticizing the U.S.?

    It’s simple. Flip things around by having America withdraw its pro-active hand from the world. We’d have fair trade with the world and be active in it, but we’d stop being everyone’s sugar daddy.

    Then, you’d see EVERY other country lining up in Washington begging the U.S. to do this-or-that for them.

    Save us! Protect us! Feed us! Educate us!
    They’d all have a story.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    That the incompetent at managing it’s own economy Obama administration should be lecturing others, is just an utterly insane level of arrogance.

  • Bonfire of the Idiocies

    Another hard lesson for Obama, who apparently thought the “real” problem was that American leaders didn’t bow enough to foreign despots. Once again, he finds that the real world is harder to deal with than it looks from the faculty lounge. The lessons for future US presidents are simple: there are no easy answers. Be humble but be resolute; know where your country’s interests lay and be prepared to defend them with violence or compromise peacefully as the situation demands. And understand that 99% of the time, the options presented to you will be “bad” and “worse”.

  • Pat Rich

    Perhaps the argument that, if the US were not relevant it would not get any negative attention, is in some limited sense meaningful – but Obama has been busily trying to change that. Execptionalism is something he does NOT value or support, a view which leads directly to the weak foreign policies one would then expect. “The problems are not new.” is nothing more than a distraction from the fact that, with a little effort or lack thereof from the Nothing in Chief, they can be and have been made worse.

    For a US President, or any chief executive, it’s *always* about dealing effectively with whatever issues one inherits or that newly arise; and on that basis, we have a big Fail in the White House. “It was his fault.” or “They did it, too.” is never a valid excuse for present incompetence.

  • jkl

    A prince can be loved or feared . It is best to be feared

  • jeremy morris

    Excellent post Walter.This is what stepping above the partizan fray really looks like

  • RebeccaH

    You are correct that the world is more fluid and tumultous than it was during the Cold War. But we cannot live up to the challenges as along as we have a leader who’s stuck in the romanticized mindset of the 60’s.

    The world is complaining because they’re getting glimpses of what things would be like without America, and even though they can’t admit it, they want the old America back. That probably isn’t going to happen, so we need a new leader who can think on his feet and navigate these strange new waters.

  • Mr. Biswas

    You may be right that foreign leaders are treating America with scorn these days, continuing a historical trend and because of their own domestic politics. Or is it possible, having once greeted Obama’s election with such HOPE ™, they’ve done the math and concluded he’s just a one-term president, so there’s really no reason for them to hide their disdain?

  • http://strasma.blogspot.com Man in the Middle

    +1 on #2:Kenny. I’m reminded of this quote: “People have friends. Nations have interests.” Seems to me our economic weakness no longer permits us to be the world’s policeman, at least not unless the world becomes willing to pay for the policing. Failing that, returning to the traditional American “Don’t Tread on Me” free trade but otherwise somewhat isolationist foreign policy makes a lot of sense.

  • RightontheLeftCoast2

    Speak softly and carry a big stick.

  • Steevo

    I tend to agree with Kenny at post #2. From here on, America will be damned if it does or doesn’t, it won’t matter who we have in office (imagine President Palin?). You emphasize Germany, I can’t think of a more anti-American Euro nation. Take a couple months to regularly read any of their prominent media and those blogging. By and large these are a prejudiced people, superior to Americans not just our presidents. I don’t disagree with your take on Obama but it won’t get any better if we have a person with real conviction understanding right from wrong in office. In fact it may get worse.

  • teapartydoc

    You can only afford to walk and talk softly when you have a big stick, either economically or militarily. When your economics prevents you from displaying a big economic stick, all you have left is bluster.

  • http://jenbradford.com/ Jen

    You omitted the most dangerous example of this phenomenon – Pakistan.

  • PTL

    Historically the world undergoes great turmoil
    At the onset of a new century. Most leaders
    have no worldly experience and the countries
    have no institutional memories. The people with those memories have past from the scene or declared irrelevant. The wheels are being reinvented, and events overtake these new leaders and they have no one to guide them. Thus, major political, economic and military
    conflicts happen.

  • Jim.

    I would have said that intellectual property theft was the sincerest form of flattery. Envy and Fear round out the top three.

    When the Dems were out of office, it was Envy. Now that they’re in office, it’s Fear — fear that they can’t do any better.

  • http://moneyrunner.blogspot.com/ The Virginian

    Walter Russell Mead has some useful things to say from time to time. Today is not one of them.

    He writes an essay that is almost a parody of a NY Times editorial: Dissing: The Sincerest Form Of Flattery in which he tries to prove that the world’s contempt is a sign of our importance. Perhaps the next article will be designed to show that Jihadists attack us because they love us.

    He provides a list of leaders around the world who are publicly challenging the United States, but concludes that this is business as usual.

    Mead:
    “While administration missteps, most notably on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, have contributed to the current atmosphere, there is nothing new about some of these problems. It has been decades since Europeans welcomed US advice about their economic problems. German chancellors since Konrad Adenauer have regularly roasted the US for what they see as our national addiction to budget deficits and fecklessly loose monetary policy. China has never liked our support for Taiwan, and the current brouhaha is mild by historical standards and looks more pro-forma than in-depth. A newly democratic and assertive Turkey is running through the eastern Mediterranean like a bull in a china shop, but this has less to do with anything President Obama has done than with long term trends in Turkey itself.”

    So we’re not seeing the US being treated any differently than before? The Konrad Adenauer I remember may not have liked American fiscal policy (the memory of hyperinflation haunts Germany to this day), but it’s inconceivable that he would have deviated from American policy. He was the leader of a country we recently defeated and currently occupied. His political focus was staying on the right side of the US.

    China is now lecturing the US about how to run a country, and NY Times columnists prefer their political system to ours. And who thinks that if China bothers to invade Taiwan Obama will do anything but give a speech at the UN?

    Turkey is turning Islamist and challenging Israel in the knowledge that the Obama administration is only paying lip service to that country, not because of any genuine commitment to the Jewish state, because they don’t want to lose the Jewish vote. If Obama wins re-election in 2012 and Holocaust II occurs, it will be greeted with crocodile tears by the Left and Obama, but I repeat myself.

    No, Walter, there is a real and not-so-subtle difference between the way the world views the US since Obama entered office. Bush, and the Presidents that preceded him believed in American exceptionalism and translated that belief into policies which, if not always successful, resulted in either respect, or fear even in the case of our enemies. Hitler, the Japanese and even Osama may have viewed the US as a morally weak, mongrel nation, a “weak horse.” But that view was not shared by Americn leaders or its people. Obama, a genuine product of the 60’s Left counterculture does not believe that America is anything special. Worse, he sees the US as the cause of much of the world’s woes. That is the meaning of Obama’s “apology tour.” It’s the reason that the US now inspires contempt. If our leaders don’t believe in our basic goodness, what are others supposed to think?

    Pakistan, which trembled – and cooperated – when Bush gave them an ultimatum to side with us against the Taliban or face destruction now gives us the middle finger by inviting the Chinese Vice Prime Minister to discuss regional security after sending surrogates to attack the American embassy in Afghanistan.

    Walter deludes himself and tries to put lipstick on this pig by saying that:

    “That leaders around the world find President Obama and the country he leads such a useful target for insults and such a useful scapegoat when things go wrong is, in a perverse — and from a US point of view, somewhat unpleasant — way, a form of flattery. The United States is being so widely attacked because it matters so much. Germany does not attack Indian leaders who criticize its economic policies; Netanyahu does not spend a lot of time thinking up new ways to demonstrate his independence from Brazil.”

    Unfortunately a simple Google search shows that Germany criticizes just about every country and vice versa. We simply don’t hear about it much because, let’s face it, we’re really not used to caring about what other countries squabble about behind our backs. It’s why NPR re-broadcasts BBC World News programs, to give us a flavor for things that simply don’t appear in the American national press.

    Walter concludes:

    “The real challenge the United States faces is to develop a new kind of strategy for a more fluid and tumultuous world.”
    The question must be asked why the world is more fluid and tumultuous. Was the US on vacation, coming back to find the house trashed by teen age party goers left behind? Walter says America “matters so much.” If so, it’s inescapable that we contributed by our actions or inactions to a tumultuous world. I maintain that the one factor that added substantially to the world’s fluidity and tumultuousness is an American president who focused his attention on shedding American global leadership because he believed that that leadership was essentially evil. A president who believes that the UN – a collection of despots an kleptocrats – is the proper vehicle for global leadership.

    This belief is reflected in the way America is viewed and treated. It’s completely natural and totally expected. I’m surprised that anyone should think anything else. Especially someone as erudite as Walter Russell Mead.

  • vb

    Schauble and Merkel were always more skeptical about Obama than the German intellectuals and average people. I think some of his enthusiastic support came from a need to show that they were not as racist as those horrible right wing Americans. The greenie promises also played a role. Maybe now, some will begin to question the objectivity of German media.

  • asdf

    I think this article is spot on as far as it goes, but it’s missing one of the more serious problems.

    Obama isn’t some passive victim of the forces of history. He’s had an active role in his own beclownment– and the US is suffering significant long-term damage as a result.

    The problems with the US position in Israel stem from Obama’s own ham-handed attempts to force a paper agreement. By taking a position to the left of even the Palestinians (a unilateral Jerusalem settlement freeze) as a precondition to negotiations, he made a demand Netanyahu could safely refuse and that eliminated Abbas’s negotiating flexibility. You yourself discussed this in detail in previous posts.

    The Bush Administration seems to have anticipated this entire dynamic. Looking at their policy in retrospect, and it’s clear that they were consolidating American relationships. Rather than the collective security goal of creating a global alliance against itself, he seemed to be pursuing a series of close regional partners (Israel in the middle east, Britain in europe, Taiwan in east asia, Georgia in the Caucuses, Poland or the Czechs in Eastern Europe). He hadn’t found a partner in Africa, but in retrospect his tour was in part designed to locate one.

    The ideal regional partner was geographically defensible, democratic/free markets, and culturally compatible with the US’s values. They act as “aircraft carriers”: a place where we can rapidly airlift our military and from which we can project our air power. But they also act as beacons of our political ideology and anchors for economic development.

    In a fluid world with no big enemy, the all-encompassing regional alliances we used to use are unworkable. While Afghanistan was the first activation of NATO to repel an attack on a member’s soil (ironically, ours), it also highlights the fact that most of the alliance partners are free riders able to contribute only token support. The “regional partners” strategy gives clear benefits to both sides: the US gains a beachhead in a region, and the partner becomes the regional hegemon thanks to US support.

    President Obama, in a series of symbolic and substantive acts since he was inaugurated, has been systematically dismantling this approach. In addition to the well-publicized attacks on Israel and Britain, he openly abandoned the Czechs and Poles. During their “Overcharge Button” tour, they incredibly wrote off the Georgians as well. Paranoid conservatives claim that Obama is rewarding and punishing allies and adversaries alike based on their actions towards the Real Enemy: George W. Bush. There’s a kernel of truth there, but I think it’s overblown. The Georgia example shows that it isn’t that Obama is trading away realism for idealism– it’s that he’s either attempting to rebuild the old collective security paradigm (broad alliances where the US is an equal partner and where potential enemies are tied together by collective action), or returning to the Clinton model (dilettantish and largely media-driven, meant to cater to the domestic audience but untethered from any long-term strategic concerns). I suspect the latter.

    Either way, the “flattery” is less important than maintaining our central position in the world. And even that is only important insofar as it helps us advance our national interests. The administration (and I mean the whole thing: Obama, Rice, Powers and Clinton) seem completely out of their depth. And that’s a very serious problem, one which on the Right we really haven’t discussed in a coherent way.

  • Haim

    So Netanyahu is defying Obama for political gain at home? How strange. In the beginning of this dysfunctional relationship all we heard from Obamaites and Leftie Jews was how the public displays of presidential displeasure will weaken Netanyahu at home to the point of departure. The whole strategy of, yes, dissing and humiliating the elected leader of allied democracy was predicated on this premise. Could the wizards of the White House be so wrong? Could they not realize that for the Israeli on the street, Obama being Obama isn’t enough for worship? Oh my…

  • Tim

    The difference is they didn’t like Bush’s push to oust the madman in Iraq, they felt he acted to unilaterally. While with Obama, they realize he is incompetent. Big difference. THey have no respect for Obama. They had great respect for Bush.

  • srp

    WRM also overlooks the point that Schauble is 100% correct on the substance of his remarks. See Prof. John Cochrane’s op-ed in today’s WSJ for a fairly lucid explanation. Saving the Euro and preventing Greek default are contradictory not complementary policies.

  • Toni

    I’m with Kenny. Dissing the U.S. is cost-free. No leader or country ever pays a price for displaying contempt.

    We are Gulliver in the land of the Lilliputians.

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