Hillary Clinton, America’s secretary of state, was in Canada last week. She criticized Ottawa for not inviting aboriginal groups to a meeting on the Arctic, and for not including the facilitation of abortion in the Canadian government’s “maternal health” initiative to developing countries. These might seem curious priorities for the global superpower at a time of war, but, with such a full plate over at the State Department, it’s no wonder that peripheral matters like Iranian nuclear deadlines seem to fall by the wayside.
Stephen Harper, prime minister of Canada, took U.S. criticisms in his stride. “Whether it comes to our role in Afghanistan, our sovereignty over our Arctic, or ultimately our foreign aid priorities, it is Canada and Canadians who will make Canadian decisions,” he said. Judging from the chill in the room at his and the secretary of state’s joint photo-op, the Canadian Arctic now extends pretty much to the U.S. border.
The Obama administration came into office promising to press the “reset” button with the rest of the world after eight years of the so-called arrogant, swaggering Texan cowboy blundering his way around the planet offending peoples from many lands. Instead, Obama pressed the ejector-seat button: Brits, Czechs, Israelis, Indians found themselves given the brush. I gather the Queen was “amused” by the president’s thoughtful gift of an iPod preloaded with Obama speeches — and, fortunately for Her Majesty, the 160GB model only has storage capacity for two of them, or three if you include one of his shorter perorations. But Gordon Brown would like to be liked by Barack Obama, and can’t understand why he isn’t.
There is much speculation on the “root cause” of presidential antipathy to America’s formerly closest ally. It is said his grandfather was ill treated by the authorities in colonial Kenya in the 1940s, which seems as good a basis as any on which to reorder 21st century bilateral relations, or at any rate as good as the proportion of the Canadian overseas-aid budget devoted to abortion promotion. But I doubt insensitive British policing two-thirds of a century ago weighs that heavy on the president. After all, his brother back in Kenya lives on twelve bucks a year, and that doesn’t seem to bother him, so it’s hard to see why ancient slights to his grandfather would — except insofar as they confirm the general biases of his collegiate-Left worldview.
In that sense, those who argue that, having been born in Hawaii and been at grade school in Indonesia, he lacks the instinctive Atlanticism of his predecessors are missing the point. Yes, he has no instinctive Atlanticism. But that’s not because of a childhood spent in the Pacific but because of an adulthood spent among the campus Left from Bill Ayers to Van Jones, not to mention Jeremiah Wright. That also conveniently explains not just the anti-Atlanticism but the anti-Zionism, at least until the scholars uncover some sinister Jewish banker in Nairobi who seized the family home after the braying Brit-imperialist toff tossed Grampa Obama behind bars. Perhaps a singing Mountie yodeling selections from Rose-Marie beneath his jailhouse window all night explains the president’s revulsion to Canadian Arctic policy. Perhaps the Gujarati fakir sharing his cell and keeping Grampa up all night with his snake charming accounts for Obama’s 18-month cold shoulder to India. And you can hardly blame him postponing his trip to Australia given the lingering resentments after Grampa was bitten by a rabid wombat down by the billabong who then ran off with his didgeridoo.
Fascinating as these psychological speculations are, we may be overthinking the situation. It’s not just the president. The entire administration suffers, to put it at its mildest, from systemic indifference to American allies. It wasn’t Obama but a mere aide who sneered to Fleet Street reporters that Britain was merely one of 200 countries in the world and shouldn’t expect any better treatment than any of the others. It wasn’t Obama but the State Department that leaked Hillary Clinton’s dressing down of Prime Minister Netanyahu. Ally-belittling comes so reflexively to this administration that it’s now doing drive-by bird-flipping. I doubt Secretary Clinton intended to change American policy when she was down in Argentina the other day and out of the blue demanded negotiations on the Falkland Islands. I would imagine she is entirely ignorant and indifferent on the subject, and calling for negotiations seemed the easy option — works for Iran and North Korea, right?
As to Canadian funding of Third World abortion, the secretary of state was simply defaulting to her own tropes: If she sounds more like the chair of Planned Parenthood than the principal spokesman for American foreign policy, well, hasn’t she always? In a 2003 autobiography almost as long and as unreadable as the health-care bill, she offered little on world affairs other than the following insights: France’s Bernadette Chirac is “an elegant, cultured woman.” Nicaragua’s Violeta Chamorro is “an elegant, striking woman.” Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto is “a brilliant and striking woman.” Canada’s Aline Chrétien is “intelligent, sharply observant and elegant.” But Russia’s Naina Yeltsin is merely “personable and articulate.” Alas, since taking office, the Obama administration hasn’t found Gordon Brown, Stephen Harper, Binyamin Netanyahu, Nicolas Sarkozy, Václav Klaus, or Manmohan Singh the least bit elegant, cultured, striking, elegant, brilliant, elegant, striking, elegant, sharply observant, elegant, or even personable and articulate.
One of the oddest features of the scene is attributed to the president’s “cool,” which seems to be the euphemism of choice for what, in less stellar executives, would be regarded as an unappealing combination of coldness and self-absorption. I forget which long-ago foreign minister responded to an invitation to lunch with an adversary by saying “I’m not hungry,” but Obama seems to reserve the line for his “friends.” Visiting France, he declined to dine with the Sarkozys. Visiting Norway, he declined to dine with the king at a banquet thrown explicitly in Obama’s honor. The other day, the president declined to dine with Netanyahu even though the Israeli prime minister was his guest in the White House at the time. The British prime minister, five times rebuffed in his attempt to book a date, had to make do with a perfunctory walk ’n’ talk through the kitchens of the U.N. Obama’s shtick as a candidate was that he was the guy who’d talk to anyone, anytime, anywhere. Instead, he recoils from all but the most minimal contact with the world.
John Bolton calls him “the first post-American president” and is punctilious enough to add that he doesn’t mean “un-American” or “anti-American.” In his Berlin speech, he presented himself as a “citizen of the world,” which, whatever else it means, suggests an indifference to America’s role as guarantor of the global order. The postponement of his Australian trip in order to ram health care down the throats of the American people was a neat distillation of the reality of his priorities: A transformative domestic agenda must necessarily come at the price of America’s global role. One-worldism is often a convenient cover for ignorance: You’d be hard pressed to find a self-proclaimed “multiculturalist” who can tell you the capital of Lesotho or the principal exports of Bhutan. And so it is with liberal internationalism: The citoyen du monde is the most parochial president of modern times.