View Obama’s “Leadership by Example” with Caution

Obama is putting a lot of effort into improving America’s relationship with the Muslim world. This was shown in Obama’s recent speech at Cairo. During the speech Obama talked about the Middle East in general, Iran’s nuclear program, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Most of the Obama administration’s foreign policy strategies use “soft power” diplomacy. Echoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s dedication towards America’s new diplomatic goals and approaches, Obama took a trip overseas almost immediately after taking office, which was refreshing to the people of the world. The biggest change has been a farewell to the Bush administration’s policy of “unilateralism” and a greater willingness to negotiate more with other countries that have moderate views. During the G-20 summit in London and the 60th NATO summit afterwards, Obama indicated that he will listen to the opinions of all countries. He also indicated that he would not make the same mistakes as the previous administration. During the Summit of the Americas, the most eye-catching moment was Obama’s interaction with an old rival of the last administration: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez; on the issue of Cuba, Obama has indicated that he would loosen the embargo and engage in more dialogue. On the long-standing problem of Iran’s nuclear program, the Obama administration has also shown its flexible side, indicating that they want to be part of the diplomatic discussion. Additionally, whether it is through Clinton’s visit to Indonesia or Obama’s visit to Turkey, the new administration has frequently shown friendliness towards the Muslim world. All of these activities are intended to rebuild America’s international image and allow it to reoccupy the moral high ground.

Upon seeing Obama’s “apology tour,” I can’t help but to think of the movie “Fan Shi Yu,” in which there is a rich man called Lei Tiger. Because his family is rich he can get whatever he wants, and has done a lot of hurtful things to others. However, he is still anxious to save face and all day long he preaches “leadership by example.” He has the power to bully people, but he won’t admit to forcing people to do things with his power; he buys off people with money, but he always thinks that people do things for him because of his virtuous example instead of their own petty interests. Faced with Lei Tiger’s “leadership by example,” people might feel intimidated. Only stupid people would believe that they would be better off doing things that are against Lei Tiger’s wishes.

Relationships between countries are in some ways similar to relationships between people. Faced with the Obama administration’s “moral high ground” and “soft power” diplomacy, I don’t think any country believes in Obama’s “leadership by example.” At present, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and Asia, areas that have come under Obama’s notice, are being cautiously optimistic: less optimistic, more cautious.

During last year’s presidential race, Obama repeatedly emphasized change. He wanted to draw a clear distinction between himself and the Bush administration, whether it was on domestic or foreign affairs. This insistence on change was important during the race so it must be reflected in his policies. Given this context, the use of “soft power” is a political move to show a difference from the last administration’s policies, using the following political logic: Bush’s policies must have been problematic and thus Obama’s policies must be different. Too bad we have yet to see any concrete changes except for some new political stances on his “apology tour.”

Flexible, moderate and multilateralism emphasizing “soft power” diplomacy does not exclude the usage of forceful and unilateral means to solve problems. It is also impossible for the Obama administration to exclude those means. Upon examination, no Democratic presidents since WWII have excluded using the military as a foreign policy tool. Truman used military means to deal with North Korea. Kennedy supplied Cuban exiles with weapons and supported military intervention against Vietnam. Johnson escalated that intervention into the Vietnam War. Clinton launched military attacks against the former Yugoslavia. Carter, who is considered a pacifist, recklessly chose the use of force to rescue American hostages during the Iran hostage crisis. In American politics, the Democratic Party had always been labeled as “weak” when it came to national security. To compensate, Democratic presidents have been more likely to use military force to solve international problems. Specifically, former Democratic President Clinton went around the United Nations when he attacked the former Yugoslavia. When multilateralism is an obstacle to American foreign policies, Democratic presidents will abandon it without hesitation. Because many members of Obama’s foreign policy staff were part of former President Clinton’s staff, Lei Tiger’s “leadership by example” will likely be watered down.

A number of domestic experts believe that Obama’s “soft power” diplomacy signals a weaker America. This opinion is reasonable. Some people mention that the power of the U.S. is declining so its hegemony must be weaker too. I think the relative power of the U.S. has not declined. The American military has not shrunk. Obama’s troop increase in Afghanistan is proof. Faced with an economic crisis and global terrorism, the American government has only limited resources and will focus on one problem more than the other. When the U.S. recovers from this economic crisis, I am afraid that the saying “leadership by example” will be watered down again.

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