Obama's Liberal Imperialism

February 11, 2014 Topic: Global Governance Region: United States

Obama's Liberal Imperialism

"American diplomats don’t consider themselves diplomats in the usual sense, but rather as representatives of an empire."


To accuse President Obama of being exceptional in his refusal to embrace American exceptionalism has been a perennial staple of discourse among hawkish conservatives intent on proving that he has a proclivity for going AWOL when it comes to national security. During the 2008 election campaign, Senator John McCain, for example, accused then candidate Obama of not believing in America’s role as the world’s leader and of not pushing back hard when confronted by those in other countries who doubted America’s greatness. And Mitt Romney tried to play the same card in 2012: “Our president doesn’t have the same feelings about American exceptionalism that we do. And I think over the last three or four years, some people around the world have begun to question that.”

For those, like me, who would prefer our country to be more of a republic and less of an empire, and to eschew its historic global role of the “dangerous nation,” to use the characterization coined by Robert Kagan, who meant it as praise, the most obvious response to these claims is a heartfelt: “If only!”


No matter what his neocon detractors may allege, it seems clear, on the basis of his conduct in office, that when Obama campaigned on the slogan, “Change You Can Believe In,” he did not mean to mount a substantial challenge to what has been the fundamental assumption of American foreign policy since the end of the Second World War—that it is up to the U.S. to lead the world and that, in the end, whether Washington has proceeded unilaterally as it did in the George W. Bush years, or multilaterally, as the Democratic Party’s foreign-policy establishment has prescribed, the America’s view of what the global order needs to look like should be dispositive, to use a word that Vice President Biden is fond of deploying. Claims that President Obama brings shame on the United States by being too humble and too conciliatory when he goes abroad, or attempts to make heavy weather of his having supposedly bowed to the Saudi king during a visit to Riyadh, or shaking hands with Raul Castro at Mandela’s funeral—a gesture Senator McCain likened to Chamberlain shaking hands with Hitler—will doubtless continue to circulate among certain branches of the GOP. They refuse to accept that America’s greatness is not enhanced by constantly intervening abroad with military force. It is undermined.

What is remarkable about the Obama administration’s foreign policy is how resistant it has been to this rather basic insight. The surprising thing is not how far the administration has strayed from neocon orthodoxy. Rather, it is the extent to which it resembles that of the Bush administration. The consanguinity, you could even say, between the neocons and liberal hawks has rarely been more apparent.

Indeed, in the case of drone strikes and the expansion of the powers of the intelligence agencies, a strong case can be made that President Obama’s hawkishness is every bit the equal of his predecessor. American diplomats in the Obama era are no different from those who served presidents Clinton and Bush. As far as they are concerned, they are the masters of the universe (well, the earth anyway); in other words they have assumed without hesitation or reservation the default position of US diplomacy since the beginning of the Cold War.

Two recent episodes, minor in the broader scheme of things, and perhaps with a bit more low comedy than is usual, have been emblematic of this. The first was Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland (interestingly, she is married to Robert Kagan) whose leaked phone conversation in which she while discussing with the US ambassador to Ukraine who should be installed in the place of the country’s current president, Viktor Yanukovych, derided the European Union’s less aggressive stance in supporting the opposition, and concluded “Fuck the EU.” The second was the decision by Samantha Power, the US permanent representative to the United Nations, to receive two recently released members of the Russian dissident performance group, Pussy Riot, and, in turn, to use the occasion to denounce Russia’s human-rights record.

Obviously, there are differences between the two events. Ambassador Power seems to have been looking for a platform to denounce the Russian government, and seems to have thought that, in doing so, she had done a good day’s work in the service of her country. In contrast, Assistant Secretary Nuland imagined her conversation to be private, and when it came out, though she tried to laugh it off, she was apparently obliged to make a number of phone calls to her European counterparts to smooth things over. As the president of the European parliament, Martin Schulz, remarked “the term ‘diplomat’ and [Nuland’s] choice of words actually stand in contradiction to each other.”

Of course, what Schulz failed to take into account was that, although they never phrase it quite so bluntly (in public, anyway), American diplomats don’t consider themselves diplomats in the usual sense, but rather as representatives of an empire. To quote a proverb from another empire, the Roman, “Quod licet jovi, non licet bovi,” ‘What is permitted to Jupiter is not permitted to an ox.’ It is this self-image, and sense of infinite entitlement, that allowed American officials, including Nuland herself, to offer no public apology, instead denouncing the Russian officials who are presumed to have publicized the “Fuck the EU” remark on the Internet—this only a few weeks after President Obama, while stating that the US would no longer tap the phones of foreign leaders who are allies of the United States, refused to be drawn on whether there would be such continued surveillance of their subordinates.

In other words, for the US to defend its right to listen to everyone else’s conversations is a key matter of national interest, but for our adversaries to do the same, and, worse, leak what they’ve recorded to the public—why that, as the State Department’s spokeswoman, Jen Paski, put it, “is a new low in Russian tradecraft.” Be careful out there, because here come Jupiter and that ox again!

Lest it be forgotten, Nuland, is not any American diplomat but rather the Assistant Secretary of State—might I note—for Europe. That even in an unguarded moment she could feel free to speak this way is not so much reminiscent of a senior foreign-service officer whose main task, Ukraine or no Ukraine, is to keep relations between the US and the EU on an even keel, but rather of a British resident agent in one of the princely states of India during the Raj. These representatives of empire must have felt the same sort of exasperation. Ah well, such are the frustrations of indirect rule, whether in Baroda or Hyderabad in 1889 or in Brussels today.

At least the British resident agent could depose a recalcitrant maharaja if the interests of the Raj required it. Poor secretary Nuland: for a moment one almost feels sorry for her, as she—can there be another word for it?—conspired with the US ambassador to Kiev to overthrow the current president of Ukraine, only to have not only her opinions about the EU but which opposition leader Washington wishes to install in his place, posted on YouTube. “Fuck the EU,” yes, but “Fuck the Russians” too for making regime change so bloody difficult.

It was a week in which antagonizing Russia almost seemed to have become an Obama administration talking point. Power kept her language clean, of course, but her message was not all that different from Nuland’s. According to Power’s spokesman, the ambassador and the two women discussed “the disturbing trend in (Russia) of legislation, prosecutions and government actions aimed at suppressing dissent and pressuring groups that advocate for fundamental human rights and basic government accountability.” And in response to Russian permanent representative Vitaly Churkin’s jibe that she should join the band herself, Power replied, “I can’t sing, but if Pussy Riot will have me…I say our first concert is for Russia’s political prisoners.”

Even leaving aside the fact that the two members of Pussy Riot whom Ambassador Power feted at the UN have been attacked by their colleagues as sell-outs who betrayed the ethical principles the group has stood for (and went to jail for), it is anything but clear why Power felt the need to goad the Russians in this way and how it could possible further her work as US permanent representative—a diplomatic post that at least traditionally calls for, well, diplomacy, not confrontational showboating. Supporters of Power’s gesture would probably argue that she was only following in the truth-telling footsteps of Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Jeane Kirkpatrick, the predecessors in her job to whom she paid tribute during her Senate confirmation hearing. But whatever one thinks of the job they did, Moynihan and Kirkpatrick picked their shots: when they confronted their Russian opposite numbers it was not only on far weightier matters than the imprisonment of a rock band for staging a political demonstration in Moscow’s biggest Orthodox cathedral. At the very least, one might have thought, given Power’s passionate feelings on the Syrian civil war, whose resolution is inconceivable without a deal with Russia, much of which will need to be hammered out at the UN, that this was hardly the time to further fray relations between Washington and Moscow by what, when all was said and done, was unnecessary grandstanding on Power’s part.