Politics & Policy

The Limits of Reinvention

If you think the U.S. was hated for being strong, wait until you see how it's despised for being weak.

It’s like the heady days of Paris, 2005. This week, the French ruling clique is having a go at America, pouring vintage disdain on American puissance – and finding that power woefully misapplied.

This was all supposed to change under Pres. Barack Obama, the first U.S. president in history to take a global lap just to say he’s sorry for his country’s behavior. His plan was to reinvent America’s image in the world. He became an overnight sensation in Paris, delighting les médiacrates with his easy dismissal of French president Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni. Months later, in France, the only person more popular with the press than Roman Polanski is Barack Obama.

But that may soon change — as it has already at the Elysée, and, for that matter, in government offices in Berlin and in Brussels and in the eastern capitals. In those places, Barack Obama, the man who practically invented reinvention, is himself being reinvented as an ugly American. Not because he’s seen as loud and aggressive, but because he’s seen as weak.

The events that have transpired since Obama took office nine months ago have been watched with widening eyes in Europe, and what they’re seeing isn’t what they had in mind when they too asked for “change.”

First, his attempt to reinvent the global banking system while pouring nearly a trillion dollars into mostly unproductive government swamps was seen by those who ought to know as nothing more than a series of simple political bribes. The Europeans — save only Britain — ridiculed the plan, stuck to their own solutions, and proved themselves right.

Then came a big wave of limpnesses — the inability to deal with North Korea; surrendering to Russia on the missile shield, leaving our eastern European allies to twist in the wind; even the mishandled melodrama in Honduras — all suggested something other than shock-and-awe. Meanwhile, his reinvention of state-run health care isn’t impressing Europeans very much, that’s for sure.

Even events that Obama may have had little to do with — the release of the Lockerbie terrorist, for example — have added to the growing perception that America is even weaker than its dollar. There’s a growing sense that, like its dollar, America as the global superpower must be doomed to be replaced by something more resilient, more realistic, more durable. Something stronger.

The latest example: At his U.N. debut last week, Obama shocked the Europeans — and especially Sarkozy — by responding to the Iranian nuclear crisis not with fair firmness, but with platitudes about arms control, the reinvention of disarmament, and achieving peace in his term.

The story-behind-the-story was an important one, and it’s been nearly overlooked. Sarkozy, who had been pressing for a forceful warning to the Iranians, had to tone down his own response. Instead, he simply pointed out that Iran had made threats that ought to be taken seriously by America and the world, but that clearly wasn’t happening. He mocked Obama by telling Le Monde’s diplomatic correspondent that the American president wasn’t living in the real world — a “virtual world,” he called it.

The story was picked up by the Wall Street Journal. That piece was then echoed by Nile Gardiner in the Daily Telegraph. Both thought it was appalling that the president of France should be telling the president of the U.S.A. how to stand up straight. As the Journal put it, “We thought wed never see the day when the President of France shows more resolve than America’s Commander in Chief for confronting one of the gravest challenges to global security. But here we are.”

At the moment, then, this is all just an excursion in irony. The current campaign in Afghanistan seems doomed to fail, not just because of an unwillingness to commit the manpower and resources necessary to do the work — call that “pragmatic weakness,” if you will — but because NATO itself is falling prey to Obama’s “reinvention” craze. Here’s an L. A. Times headline sure to terrify every serious European leader: “Obama: New NATO coming, shape and strategy TBD.”

But reinvention has its limits, and so far Obama has found every one. The Europeans rightly fear that the president of the United States is a man who would set out to reinvent the electric light — then leave us all holding candles. But singing “Kumbaya.”

A less-than-forceful America has serious implications for Europe. If Obama is willing to throw the Poles to Putin, what does that mean for the rest of Europe? Just the idea of defending themselves is enough to bankrupt most European states. A strong America may have been unpopular. That’s the price a nation pays for its superpower status, and even when the Left was at its most successful in demonizing the U.S., they could never quite diminish the hopeful respect for American ideals that always lurked nearby.

But Obama may have found a way to reinvent America as something in his own image, even if more loathsome: a weak nation shrinking from the responsibilities of strength. A weak America is a prize that Yank-bashers have been dreaming about for 50 years, because that’s an America that, perhaps rightly, will be truly and forever despised.

Denis Boyles teaches at The Brouzils Seminars in France. His most recent book is Superior, Nebraska.

Denis BoylesDennis Boyles is a writer, editor, former university lecturer, and the author/editor of several books of poetry, travel, history, criticism, and practical advice, including Superior, Nebraska (2008), Design Poetics (1975), ...

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