Democracies Don’t Always Stick Together

obama010409.jpgIn addition to that article on Brazil by Susan Kaufman Purcell published in the Wall Street Journal today, Gideon Rachman’s latest column in the Financial Times (see excerpts below) is the second time in one day we’ve the Obama Administration catch some criticism for its lapse in global leadership.  Whether we are talking about Washington being caught off-guard with Lula entertaining Ahmadinejad, or the even greater embarrassment of Obama getting snubbed at Copenhagen for meetings with the leaders of India and China, America’s lack of leadership and lack of awareness of changing geopolitical circumstances is really starting to get noticed.

This was a topic I recently commented on in O Estado de São Paulo,and was also a central subject of conversation at a global securityconference I spoke at in New Delhi, India last month.  Following eightyears of international hubris under George W. Bush, the ObamaAdministration has pursued a general policy of re-engagement, which, onpaper, is much needed to restore international confidence and trust. But Rachman and others have a point:  what else do we have beyond that?

I don’t see too much I disagree with in the FT piece, apart from thefact that this trend is not necessarily something to worry about.  Allof these leading democracies of emerging nations are doing much todiversify their relations and assert their regional roles – both ofwhich contribute to stability.  Turkey has become notably moreinfluential in the region, and serves as an important bridge betweenEurope and the Middle East.  Brazil is working with Unasur, perhaps notalways toward the most constructive results, to achieve balance againstVenezuela’s potemkin institution ALBA.  India is becoming more and moreinfluential on security issues in the Af-Pak theater, and one could saythat their relations with the United States haven’t been this close ina century.  It is over-stating the case to argue that any of thesecountries don’t have good relations with the United States – but Obamamight just have to wait his turn like everybody else.

Despite this, there seems to be an absence of high level thought onforeign policy in the new administration, and fewer results.  Obama maytalk the talk, but he hasn’t yet walked the walk.

From the Financial Times:

But the assumption that the world’s democracieswill naturally stick together is proving unfounded. The latest examplecame during the Copenhagen climate summit. On the last day of thetalks, the Americans tried to fix up one-to-one meetings between MrObama and the leaders of South Africa, Brazil and India – but failedeach time. The Indians even said that their prime minister, ManmohanSingh, had already left for the airport. (…)

So what is going on? The answer is that Brazil, South Africa, Turkeyand India are all countries whose identities as democracies are nowbeing balanced – or even trumped – by their identities as developingnations that are not part of the white, rich, western world. All fourcountries have ruling parties that see themselves as champions ofsocial justice at home and a more equitable global order overseas.Brazil’s Workers’ party, India’s Congress party, Turkey’s AKP and SouthAfrica’s African National Congress have all adapted to globalisation -but they all retain traces of the old suspicions of global capitalismand of the US.

Mr Obama is seen as a huge improvement on GeorgeW. Bush – but he is still an American president. As emerging globalpowers and developing nations, Brazil, India, South Africa and Turkeymay often feel they have more in common with a rising China than withthe democratic US.

Photo credit: President Barack Obama looks over his sunglasses atthe menu of shave ice at Island Snow, in Kailua, Hawaii Friday, Jan. 1,2010. The Obamas are in Hawaii for the holidays. (Copyright AP Photo)