Back in the days when Barack Obama scored political points for setting the right tone and hitting the right notes, this was one of his best lines, it’s significance underlined by the fact that it came in his inauguration speech.
… the world has changed, and we must change with it.
From America the hyperpower to America the adaptive power. From a president who liked to wield a chainsaw to a president who loved basketball — the blundering giant was going to give way to deft leadership, agile and attuned to the moment.
As cynical as I might sound, I still think Obama gets this. I think he understands what the possibility looks like, yet he also seems convinced that seemingly inviolable political realities dictate that he sticks to a script that could have been written for George Bush. Indeed, had it been possible for there to have been a third Bush term, the trajectory set from 2006 onward appeared to have been heading in the direction we have now landed.
So maybe it’s time Obama asked himself this question: does he want to be remembered as a continuation of the past or as a man who actually helped American embrace the future?
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are men who represent the kind of future Obama really should believe in, yet having made himself a slavish tool of Washington’s institutional power, he operates with the calculations and lack of authenticity that have become synonymous with modern Western political leadership. Paradoxically, the art of securing political power now dictates that the power thereby acquired will be insufficient to bring about any significant change.
In spite of this, officials in Washington still harbor the conceit that they hold and are able to move all the major levers of global power — Washington still sees itself as the engine room of global change. No wonder the up-swell of indignation when two “lesser powers” have the audacity to become agents of change in an arena where this administration has thus far been manifestly impotent.
For months, Administration officials–and most U.S.-based Iran analysts–have asserted that the Islamic Republic is too internally conflicted to have a coherent international strategy or make important decisions. Senior Brazilian, Chinese, and Turkish officials who have invested significant amounts of time in substantive discussions with Iranian counterparts argued to Washington for months that a nuclear deal was possible. But Secretary Clinton and others in the Obama Administration thought they knew better–and said so publicly.
In fact, Iran has worked purposefully–dare we say strategically–to cultivate relations with important rising powers, like Brazil and Turkey, as well as China. And, this week, Tehran showed that it can take major decisions. Can the same things be said of the Obama Administration?
President Obama, who came to office professing a new U.S. approach to international engagement, allowed himself to be upstaged by new powers because he has been unwilling to match his rhetoric with truly innovative diplomacy that takes real notice of other countries’ interests.
The world was eager to forgive American arrogance when it appeared it could be more narrowly circumscribed as George Bush’s arrogance, but the heavy-handed approach now being applied by the current administration suggests that as the world changes, America is incapable of changing with it.
Simon Tisdall observes that the emerging realignment of global power does not simply involve America’s diminishing power but also a shift away from the American way of wielding power.
Brazil and Turkey, two leading members of a new premier league of emerging global powers, have a quite different approach. They stress persuasion and compromise. In the case of Iran, instead of ultimatums, deadlines and sanctions, they prefer dialogue. It helps that neither country feels threatened by Tehran.
Lula da Silva, Brazil’s popular president, typifies this outlook. He gave Clinton fair warning earlier this year that it was “not prudent to push Iran against a wall”. More broadly, Lula has championed the cause of emerging countries, challenged the rich world’s assumptions at the Copenhagen climate summit, and bearded the US over Cuba and Hugo Chávez.
Lula speaks for a world that was formed in the west’s image but is increasingly rejecting its tutelage and its ideas. China and India are the foremost members of this pack. But their leaders’ overriding priority is to build up their countries’ economic strengths. For most part, Beijing avoids open fights with the Americans and their west-European allies. The time will come when that will change – but not yet.
Reacting angrily to Clinton’s implied suggestion that somehow they had been suckered into the uranium deal by the crafty Iranians, Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti, Brazil’s ambassador to the UN, said Brazil would not co-operate with US-initiated security council discussions on a new resolution. Without unanimity in the council, new sanctions are even less likely to be honoured or effectively implemented than is already the case now.
Brazil’s foreign minister, Celso Amorim, also warned Washington to think again. “We have a chance to achieve a peaceful, negotiated solution [with Iran]. Those who turn down that possibility, or who think that sanctions or other measures would get us closer, they’ll have to take responsibility for that.” Such robust language is an eloquent expression of the changing power dynamic between the old superpower and its new rivals.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister and, like Lula, the leader of an emerging regional power, has a more direct interest in what happens in Iran. The two countries have a common border and a common belief that the Middle East has seen too much interference by foreign powers. Ankara does not want a nuclear-armed Iran any more than it wants a nuclear-armed Israel. In fact, it seeks to empty the region of all weapons of mass destruction.
But Erdogan is increasingly resistant to the US way of doing things, whether it is turning a blind eye to Israel’s Gaza depredations, lecturing Turkey on Armenian history, or maintaining double standards on nuclear weapons. Like most Turks, Erdogan opposed the invasion of Iraq. He has led a rapprochement with Syria, another American bete noire. And he suggested this week that Washington was behaving arrogantly in dismissing the Iran deal.
“This is the time to discuss whether we believe in the supremacy of law or the law of the supremes and superiors,” he said. “While they [the US] still have nuclear weapons, where do they get the credibility to ask other countries not to have them?” Yet despite his obvious anger, Erdogan still answered Clinton’s criticism that the timeline for the uranium swap was “amorphous”. Iran was expected to fulfil its part of the deal within one month, otherwise it would “be on its own”, he said.
Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s foreign minister, made clear Ankara’s opposition to further sanctions – and that he was not worried about upsetting the Americans. “We don’t want any new sanctions in our region because it affects our economy, it affects our energy policies, it affects our relations in our neighbourhood,” he said. Without Turkish co-operation, any new measures will struggle to have an impact.
That may prove to be the case anyway. Overlooked in the furore is the consideration that, thanks to stiff Chinese and Russian opposition, the proposed new sanctions, even if agreed as drafted, are fairly weak. This is nothing like the “crippling” package promised by Clinton, is largely voluntary or non-binding in nature, and will have no effect on Iran’s oil and gas sales – its main source of income.
Supplementary, tougher measures are expected from the EU at a later date while individual countries, such as the US and Britain, may take additional, unilateral steps. So what the US would like to portray as the international community’s united front against Iran is likely to boil down, in reality, to a narrowly-based coalition of the willing involving Washington and a handful of west-European states.
This week’s symbolically significant attempt by Brazil and Turkey to do things differently, and the divisions the subsequent row exposed, suggests this already rickety traditional international security architecture, maintained and policed by a few self-appointed countries, cannot hold much longer. Power is shifting away from the west. You can almost feel it go.