Sunday, April 19, 2009

Summit of the Americas Shows the Value of Charisma

Obama's courting the hemisphere; "re-engaging," he calls it. Sometimes, I'm not entirely sure why we care whether Venezuela or Ecuador likes us, but the people of the United States want the world to love them. And if that's what they want, it's what Obama is delivering.

Obama made some pretty small concessions to Cuba recently. In essence, he's allowed direct relatives of people in Cuba to visit their relatives in Cuba without limit, and to send remittances without limit. The policy is shrewd--it keeps Cubans from immediately enjoying a vast cheapening of goods (cell phones are a serious luxury) that might bolster the Castro regime. The concessions stay in the theme of giving families the ability to support each other--and that's hard to argue with. But the concessions are a sign that more may be on the way, if Cuba is able to act. What the US wants out of Cuba is increased liberty, democracy, human rights, etc. I think the idea of taking down the Castro regime with economic sanctions has long gone out the window--hanging onto that goal is foolish. And with the Cold War long gone, the Castro regime no longer remains a threat in any way to the security of the United States or its allies. But we, as the Good Guys, would prefer if we could lever our economic and political power to bring greater freedom and human rights to the peoples of Cuba, and that's a fine thing.

Raul Castro has responded in his own way, by saying that he'd be willing to meet with Obama to discuss "everything." It's a fine first step. Sadly, putting sanctions back up after taking them down is politically costly, and it's tough to ensure that Castro will follow through with any promises towards democratization, human rights, or liberty.

At the Summit, Obama was met with a standing ovation by other world leaders. Even Chavez didn't say a single bad thing about Obama--Chavez specifically limited his criticisms of the United States to the past. Obama's mere presence has derailed a lot of criticism of the US, even though policy hasn't changed much. Part of it's the change in rhetoric--Obama has brought a lot of that. Some of it is progress on the Cuba front. But Obama talks pretty, apparently listens well, and is the kind of guy that you hope likes you after he meets you (the concept of not liking him after meeting him boggles most people outside the US).

In diplomacy, these traits can go surprisingly far. Bush was often aloof, and was apparently not a great listener--he'd show up with a policy and advocate for it, and was apparently not very good at pretending there was a dialogue. He didn't charm people. Obama does. And that fact alone may make the job of the United States a whole lot easier over the next 8 years.

But the standing ovation for Obama shows that world opinion is fickle. A simple changing of personalities in the White House can change responses in the streets from protests to parties. Has the US given up most of the world's grievances? Nope (but it has given up a few things, like stopped outsourcing interrogation to Eastern Europe). Iraq policy is essentially going how Mr. Bush would have planned it. Afghanistan policy is changing, but it's a re-trenching, not a pulling-out. The US is still backing Israel and pursuing a two-state solution. It's still in favor of expanding NATO, and of keeping tough sanctions on Iran and on North Korea, and even on Cuba. Obama's being careful not to give much away (beyond "first hit's free" tasters of policy change that whet the tongue for negotiation).

What this means is that Obama, if he is going to actually make the collective lives of the United States easier in the foreign policy realm, must use his charm and charisma to seek policy changes in other countries that are permanent (difficult to reverse), beneficial (directly making our lives cheaper/more prosperous/safer, etc), and tying (increasing "interdependence" in the world such that opposing powerhouse economies like the US leaves you behind). He must also make sure not to ignore traditional US allies, like Japan, South Korea, Israel, Britain, Poland, Australia. But he seems to be standing by them where they need it, so far. And he may have correctly identified that they need far less maintenance as allies than they have recently had. With essentially scarce diplomatic resources, Obama must balance between wooing and maintaining. But frankly, I think he's off to a good start. Let's see what he can do with it.
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