Obama is no one’s fool. He understands that U.S. influence is declining and that our still-unparalleled power to destroy can tempt us into disaster. But he won’t say any of this straight out.
Instead, he skates delicately around the edges of straight talk. He suggests that America can’t solve all the world’s problems. He reminds us, as he did in a CNN interview this month, that “the situation in Syria is very difficult and the notion that the U.S. can somehow solve what is a sectarian, complex problem inside of Syria sometimes is overstated.… Sometimes what we’ve seen is that folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff that … gets us mired in very difficult situations.” But he won’t tell Americans the blunt truths they need to hear: We can’t fix Syria. Or Egypt. Or most other places. We don’t even know how to fix our own problems.
Obama tends to couple even such mild reminders of U.S. limitations with Lake Wobegon-style cheerleading. “Around the world there is a new feeling about America,” he enthused to Air Force Academy cadets in a 2012 speech. “There’s a new confidence in our leadership.… The United States is stronger … and more respected in the world.” The United States is “the greatest nation on earth,” he gushed a few months later. Just this month, in the very same CNN interview in which he cautioned against rushing to action in Syria, he insisted that America is “the one indispensable nation.”
I’m sympathetic to Obama’s plight. Every time he tries to be halfway honest about declining U.S. power, the right jumps all over him. But his failure to be honest also comes with a cost.
When the president keeps insisting that the United States is the greatest/strongest/most beloved/most powerful country on Earth, here’s what happens: The rest of us start to believe it, and we start to demand results that match the rhetoric. If we’re so awesome and so strong, why aren’t we fixing Syria? Why aren’t we intimidating the Russians and getting the Egyptian military to behave and generally controlling the world as we see fit?
To Americans accustomed to a stream of triumphalist, exceptionalist rhetoric, Obama’s failure to act forcefully in the face of other states’ bad behavior doesn’t look like the wisdom of a president who understands the increasing limits of American power – it just looks like hypocrisy, lack of interest, or baffling passivity.
If Obama could bring himself to speak more honestly about the limits of American power, he might well pay a short-term political price – but in the long term, he might also find Americans much more willing to cut him some slack.
Still more importantly, some increased presidential honesty about the decline of U.S. power might refocus Americans on the things that we can change.
Rosa Brooks, Wounded Giant
Obama is stuck, and so is Rosa Brooks. What she says is ‘right’, in that the facts are correctly stated. But she’s laboring under the same delusion that Obama and the American population is because she’s using postmodern lenses to evaluate postnormal power.
– Our ability to determine how things will come out if we take a specific action has diminished, not the destructive force of our cruise missiles, because everything is now connected to everything else to an unprecedented degree, a snarl of complexity beyond the algorithms of the hedge funds’ supercomputers. –
Brooks make the case that America is less powerful than it was, and that Obama should bit the bullet and just say so, and then we’d allow him more slack. After which he would do… what exactly? If we, the people, agreed with this mindset we’d stop living in Lake Woebegone, and be living in… where?
Here’s the hitch: we’re living in an era that is not a simple continuation of the previous thirty years but where other actors have grown more powerful. No, we’ve moved into an area of dramatically increased uncertainty, ambiguity, volatility, and complexity. The world is more interconnected economically than even before, and neoliberal globalism – not national actors – are imposing enormous non-state force in countries across the world. This is increasing tensions at all levels – global, regional, and within all nations, and corrupting officials everywhere. But this is an enemy – like Islamist terrorists – that can never be confronted on a battlefied. And if and when we jail a few ‘whales’ for the most egregious financial crimes, it makes no difference because there are a thousand new wannabee Masters Of The Universe graduating from Dartmouth, Yale, and Harvard, dying to take his place. Behind the scenes, financial regulation is stalled because government regulatory agencies have been colonized just like our political parties. And the fat cats pulling the levers move behind the scenes, opening research groups in China, attending Davos, buying up a phosphate monopoly in Morocco, and financing new roads in Afghanistan so Chinese companies have access to its vast mineral riches.
– The human psyche can tolerate a great deal of prospective misery, but it cannot bear the thought that the future is beyond all power of anticipation. – Robert Heilbroner –
In a world awash with money, party-based political systems are massively corrupt and the blockage of change we are witnessing is a byproduct of the rich being unsure of the risk landscape of this new era. They don’t know which way we should jump, so there is no change allowed. This is the same crackdown we are seeing in China, manifested through a different postnormal power apparatus: one that is no more corrupt or anti-democratic than ours, except in our case, in America, most people believe this is democracy, where in China and Russia, everyone knows the system is corrupt, but they are afraid that things could be much worse if the system fell to pieces.
A characteristic of the postnormal is that we are confronted with dilemmas that are inherently unsolvable, not problems to be solved. Obama isn’t telling us that, because people don’t want to believe it. Robert Heilbroner wrote,
The human psyche can tolerate a great deal of prospective misery, but it cannot bear the thought that the future is beyond all power of anticipation.
Our ability to determine how things will come out if we take a specific action has diminished, not the destructive force of our cruise missiles, because everything is now connected to everything else to an unprecedented degree, a snarl of complexity beyond the algorithms of the hedge funds’ supercomputers.
Just consider Syria: Iran and Saudi Arabia are involved in a proxy battle, using Sunni, Shia, Alawites, Kurds, Iraq, Lebanon, Hezbollah, and Christians as pawns. Each of those pawns is also advancing its own aims, and in each of those groups their is discord, and among, them shifting loyalties and a thousand years of grievances. Then there are the Russian links to the country, the US partnership with colonial Israel, and the European interests and ties in the regions. And of course, behind the scenes, the multinational companies making billions by through loans, selling weapons, building bridges, mining, and pumping oil.
It’s impossible to imagine a smooth scenario here, even if there is a high value placed on saving lives. But at least we aren’t saying we can occupy for a few months or years and change everything: build a nation and lasting ‘peace’ (whatever that is supposed to mean). At least Obama won’t tell that lie.