The three Obamas

The London press was abuzz this weekend with stories of President Obama's 500-person entourage. No detail was too small to cover, but the thrust of the story was that most of the details were really big, such as his 200-man secret service detail. There also seemed to be real fascination with all the First Toys, the helicopter and the new presidential limo that comes with a name -- "The Beast" -- that suggests it will soon have its own series or feature in the next Michael Bay movie.

But what the coverage missed was the fact that at the head of this delegation would be not one, but three Barack Obamas. No other country can boast the same kind of high-level representation. Because while each of the 26 delegations at the G20 meeting will be lead by a head of government or state, the U.S. delegation will be led by Barack Obama, media superstar, Barack Obama, president of the United States and Barack Obama, leader of the free world. And for all their similarities, each of these Barack Obamas is likely to have a very different meeting. 

Barack Obama, media superstar, is likely to be in his element, flashbulbs popping, and throngs of spectators lining the streets to catch a glimpse of him. He is the most famous man in the world, telegenic, charming and, oh yes, an African American. For most of the countries in attendance at the G20 meeting, the thought of an ethnic minority rising to the level of political success Obama has achieved is unthinkable and the world is titillated by that, the boldness of his story and his charisma (and with some luck, they are learning something). Who knows, perhaps even Brazil's President Lula, who this weekend blamed the crisis on white people with blue eyes, will ask Obama if he knows any African American bankers. Or perhaps Silvio Berlusconi, doing everything in his power to remind the world that Italy truly no longer belongs at these meetings of the world's most powerful countries, will offer one of his racist bon mots like last week's comments that he was "paler" than Obama. In any event, almost anything anyone does with or near Obama will be caught on a camera and disseminated worldwide within moments. And since there is no such thing as bad publicity for media superstars, even lousy policy outcomes are not likely to dim the brightest shining star in the political galaxy.

Barack Obama, president of the United States, has a tougher job on his hands. He has to balance domestic political realities with international imperatives. This trip is really his diplomatic coming out party, a chance to determine whether he is not only a star but a genuine world leader. In a few short days he will meet with top representatives of almost every really important country in the world and each of those meetings will raise complex issues. Obama has to master those complexities and produce real advances on both the economic and international security fronts. As the FT detailed well in Monday's lead editorial, he needs to get the IMF recapitalized (likely), make progress on getting sufficiently robust stimulus packages underway internationally (considerably less likely), make progress on restoring order and confidence to financial markets (we will do less than we should), and stemming the tide of protectionism (the leaders will swear to do this on stacks of bibles all manufactured exclusively in their home countries.) 

On all these points, it's tough to be president of the United States: We need the IMF to have the cash needed to stem the downward spiral, but the Congress is going to balk at paying. We would like other countries to pull their weight on solving this global problem but they think and will say that we started it. We have huge stakes in good global regulation but choke on ceding authority to international organizations. And we benefit hugely from free trade and would suffer hugely from protectionism, but reason doesn't drive trade debates in the United States and the president owes a lot to the unions.

Finally, while the title "leader of the free world" seems a little antiquated given the end of the Cold War, it is still the moniker that most closely captures the special role the U.S. president assumes when it comes to international leadership. This, in many respects, is the most important of the three Obamas and the one who faces the most changed reality. America, reeling from the disrepute and anger of the Bush years, had hoped to recover, but instead is seen as the cause of the current global economic crisis. So, Obama will be on the defensive and, given our financial state, the country that is the source of his power will legitimately be seen as somewhat diminished. Further, the trends of the past several years have pushed to the fore a new set of major powers all of which are now demanding enhanced roles. That's the reason the G20 and not the G8 is meeting in the first place...and it's the reason that when Obama decided to take the lead on shaping a leader of major economies on climate issues, 17 countries were selected. (Excellent initiative.)  All critical discussions of a global nature must now include China, India, and Russia and each country poses serious challenges for Obama if he is to continue to be the de facto chairman of the world. Further, when Obama heads to NATO meetings it will be clear that whether the United States is becoming more multilateral in its orientation out of necessity or desire, leading is hard when your primary ally -- Europe -- is fractured and has grown accustomed to having the United States pay more and take more risk than Obama would like. 

Obviously, all three Obamas would like to have a good trip. But frankly, they should be happy if two out of three feel it's a win. That'll be a good outcome for a young presidency. But if it's only the sizzle of Obama Superstar and the other two can't deliver on the big issues at stake, he'll be happy to get back home and resume dealing with the easy problems like Congress, health care, reinventing U.S. energy markets, and saving Detroit.


David Rothkopf

The axis of stability

At my summer camp in Maine -- which was really the equivalent of that South Pacific manhood ritual where they attach vines to a teenaged boy's testicles and throw him off a tree -- on the very first day they would gather all the new campers around and teach them the camp song. It was entitled "Oh, Camp We Love" and, as the budding concentration camp guards they called counselors used to point out, "it's sung to the same tune as the Canadian national anthem, "O Canada.'" Naturally, this generated confusion and blank stares from all the boys present because the comment was roughly as helpful as suggesting the camp talent show utilize the same narrative technique as The Tale of Genji. I mean, for goodness sake, we were from New Jersey. We knew Canada was up there somewhere between Boston and the North Pole and that they played hockey there, but beyond that, details were scarce.

Since then, throughout my life, I have always found that when giving a talk, a reference to Canada is reliably good for a laugh. Making fun of Canada seldom offends any American and Canadians tend to be too polite to object. And it it's funny because Canada is so darned unthreatening, bland enough to make your average bowl of tapioca seem muy caliente. (The only thing more boring than Canada? Coldplay. "Viva la vida?!" Seriously. Viva la sominex.) Of course, I'm not the only one who has gone after Canada. Take for example the greatest song ever written about international relations, "Blame Canada." (Which song clearly kicks the ass of anything Coldplay has ever written. Of course, so too does anything ever done by that immortal Canadian-Egyptian-Armenian, Raffi.)

It's all a bit unfair actually. A lot unfair. And I was thinking this as I was watching President Obama's press conference with Prime Minister Harper. Harper's year has been as politically star-crossed as Obama's has been seemingly guided by a lucky star. But together yesterday, these two were the picture of what good allies should be. They were polite, respectful, at times deferential, honest about areas of concern and seemingly sincere in their desire to work through potential trouble spots whether they be sclerotic border crossings or the potential for turbulence on trade. Both were gracious, articulate, and statesmanlike.

The U.S.-Canada Clean Energy Dialogue they announced was an excellent step to strengthen an already rock-solid relationship by collaborating on an issue where common interests abound.

During the news conference held by Harper and Obama, each of the men warmly characterized the state of the relationship between the two countries. Framing his remarks in the context of Obama's ascendancy to office, Harper said:

His election to the presidency launches a new chapter in the rich history of Canada-U.S. relations. It is a relationship between allies, partners, neighbors, and the closest of friends; a relationship built on our shared values -- freedom, democracy, and equality of opportunity epitomized by the President himself."

Obama, speaking next said:

I came to Canada on my first trip as President to underscore the closeness and importance of the relationship between our two nations, and to reaffirm the commitment of the United States to work with friends and partners to meet the common challenges of our time. As neighbors, we are so closely linked that sometimes we may have a tendency to take our relationship for granted, but the very success of our friendship throughout history demands that we renew and deepen our cooperation here in the 21st century.

"We're joined together," he continued, "by the world's largest trading relationship and countless daily interactions that keep our borders open and secure. We share core democratic values and a commitment to work on behalf of peace, prosperity, and human rights around the world."

Usually such words exchanged between political leaders are empty rhetoric. But, in the case of the U.S. and Canada, even with the ups and downs the relationship has been through, they ring true.

It underscored a reality that doesn't earn magazine covers in the way problems such as those highlighted in FP's Axis of Upheaval do. It is natural to focus on problems and threats. But throughout human history and especially in the current era, instability and failed states are really "dog bites man." 

What is rare, exceptional really, are the cases of the special relationships, the alliances that transcend treaties and become true and enduring partnerships. In many of the most important elements of life and foreign policy, boring is good. Boring is the foundation that allows us to stand the upheaval. Boring is constant in an inconstant world and as such is indispensable and invaluable. (The very best marriages for similar reasons, are sometimes perceived as boring. My wife for example, likes both Canada and Coldplay very much. Come to think of it, I'd probably better move on to the next thought...)

I would go further, it may well be that among the relationships of neighboring states, particularly among comparatively powerful neighbors, the U.S.-Canada relationship may be unique in history.  Oh sure, once, long ago, we had that little "Fifty-four Forty or Fight" issue, but that was with the British and frankly with all that manifest destiny testosterone pulsing through our then adolescent veins we were bound to get into trouble with anyone we encountered.

To put it into context, go through history in your mind. Pick two neighbors anywhere. Now find a pair that have gotten along better, avoided war (save for the conflicts depicted in "Canadian Bacon" and that in the aforementioned classic "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.")

Go further, in the vein of my post last week on America's worst alliances, make a list of America's best alliances. Canada tops the list so easily that it is hard to find anyone else that is close. There's the United Kingdom, of course, but we did get off to a bit of a rocky start with them and there was that pesky War of 1812 and they were, despite being officially neutral, not entirely constructive during the Civil War.

And then the next best ally? Ah, while the choices are few they are so tempting. Readership-baiting is so gratifying. (Really, you guys are so easy to toy with. It's like having a dog that always goes after the stick.) I guess the next best ally we have had is Israel. (There, I've said it. Come on all you "realists" time to line up and give it your best shot. I'll even provide your first line for you: "Some of my best friends are Jews, but...") Or, offering the kind of paradox that makes such analyses so much fun (and explains everything about our relationship with the French) perhaps number three is actually France. Ah, this really is too enjoyable.

I think I will stop writing and just warmly contemplate your reactions out there in Wonkavia, land of the Foreign Policy geeks. (And congratulate myself for having gotten through an entire piece about Canada without a single joke about Celine Dion.)