There is a surprising amount of liberal discomfort, here and abroad, with the underwhelming nature of President Obama’s Asian tour. Apparently this results from displeasure over the lack of any substantive dialogue with the Chinese about climate change (and China’s inordinate coal burning), censorship, the lack of human rights, Tibet, unfair trade practices, etc. (In the president’s defense, if we are going to borrow at an annual rate of $1.6 trillion for further entitlement spending, some of it floated at low interest from the Chinese, we are not going to have a lot of leverage with our creditors.)
The liberal discontent (even in the New York Times, of all places) is strange, inasmuch as Obama campaigned on exactly this sort of multilateralism and deference to the UN. In this new approach, America doesn’t try to ”get” anything from anyone, but simply listens, and as a guest abroad defers to its hosts. After all, Obama has rejected in explicit language the notion of American exceptionalism. The Nobel Peace Prize committee correctly sensed Obama’s departure from the past and preemptively awarded him the prize, both as praise for his utopian rhetoric and as a reminder than the first multilateral president should govern as if the United States is merely one among many nations in the world.
French president Nicolas Sarkozy sensed this as well at the UN, in reference to Iran. I think most nations have caught on and are making the necessary adjustments, and the Asian tour will be followed by many more like it: inspirational photo-ops, soaring ”I am the first Pacific, African, Latin American, etc. president,” assurances that change abroad can happen as it has in America (as exemplified by Obama himself, of course), implicit “reset” criticism of the previous unilateral administration, and hope-and-change rhetoric about new multilateral partnerships, followed by a town-hall question-and-answer session (probably censored).
So again, why the unease with Obama’s trip?
From the trivial expressions like bowing to the more fundamental one of deferring to the Chinese Communist leadership, Obama is merely establishing the outlines of the promised new foreign policy.
France will be as prominent as we are in the Mideast negotiations; Russia will adjudicate regional disputes with former Soviet republics and interests in eastern Europe; progressive nations like Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, Ecuador, Peru, and others will establish a Latin American consensus that favors a statist, anti-capitalist, and less democratic paradigm of indigenous governance. China, naturally, will insidiously begin to shape the regional futures of the Koreas, Taiwan, Japan, and the Philippines. Turkey can sort out its problems with Greece. The UN Human Rights Council will be the proper forum in which to express unhappiness with human-rights transgressions abroad.
This new consensus is what Obama promised, and it is what Obama is doing his best to deliver.
Exceptional American support for human rights, preeminent worry about a nuclear Iran, democracy abroad, tilts to old friends like Britain and Israel, security guarantees to democratic allies, American enforcement of global commercial and trade protocols — all that was included under the old American notion of exceptionalism and, logically, should expire with it. The Asian tour should have delighted Obamaites as the proper expression of Obama’s philosophy: two equal nations, neither one more exceptional than the other (or any other), their systems merely “different,” not better or worse, simply chatting about mutual concerns.