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Why Barack Obama is not going to be the foreign policy president anytime soon

Picking up on a theme I discussed earlier this week, I see that both Fred Kaplan and Matthew Yglesias conclude that a politically chastened Obama will not find any salvation in foreign policy. They both give similar reasons -- anything of significance will require Congressional approval, and Congress ain't in the giving mood. 

I don't really disagree with Kaplan and Yglesias, but I do think they're missing something important:  with an economy shedding jobs, the last thing Obama wants to do is pump up his international profile.  Even if he could claim successes, foreign policy achievements -- particularly of the non-military kind -- during an economic downturn are pretty much a dead-bang political loser.  Why?  Because even successes suggests that the president cares more about the rest of the world than his own countrymen.   

Think about it.  The last time a sitting president focused on foreign affairs in the middle of a recession was George H.W. Bush.  That was great from a policy perspective, but a political disaster for Bush.  I won't swear to this, but my impression is that Obama's standing has taken a hit whenever he's gone overseas in the past year. 

On the other  hand, during a recession presidents can tell the rest of the world to go f*** themselves and they won't lose much in the way of popularity. 

Just a glance at the December 2009 Pew survey shows the extent to which Americans are looking inward.  And who can blame them -- it's a pretty bad economy and there's double-digit unemployment.  This tendency is exacerbated by something that Kaplan does point out

In the post-Cold War world, with the fracturing of power and the decline of influence by any one country or bloc, the problems that he faces are simply harder—more impervious to military, economic, or diplomatic pressure—than they would have been 20 to 50 years ago.

I'd say "post-Great Recession world," but that's quibbling.  If Americans are fed up with how long it takes for anything to get done in Congress, wait until they pay attention to foreign affairs.  The Doha round is on year nine and counting.  With important exceptions, the United States has military forces in practically every country it's intervened in since 1945. Who knows how long a global warming treaty -- or the reconstruction of Haiti -- will take.

Are there exceptions?  Sure, but they're ephemeral.  I suspect the follow-on to START-II would get through the Senate, because, really, is now the time to pick a fight with Russia?  Osama bin Laden's head on a pike would probably warm the cockles of most Americans.  But they wouldn't stay warm for long. 

No, it's the economy, stupid.  The healthier the economy, the more political capital for Obama, and the less likely he will be punished for taking an interest in foreign affairs.  If Obama has any political self-preservation instincts at all, international relations will be done on the DL for a while. 

It's unfair, and very problematic for foreign policy wonks, but no one said life is fair.

Daniel W. Drezner

What Chinatown tells us about the Google controversy

In light of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's big Internet freedom speech this AM, I thought it would be a good idea to get a handle on how China is playing this whole Google controversy.   

Well, according to the New York Times, it appears that China is downplaying l'affaire Google as a minor matter about business regulation:

The Chinese government is taking a cautious approach to the dispute with Google, treating the conflict as a business dispute that requires commercial negotiations and not a political matter that could affect relations with the United States.

Officials were caught off guard by Google’s move, and they want to avoid the issue’s becoming a referendum among Chinese liberals and foreign companies on the Chinese government’s Internet censorship policies, say people who have spoken to officials here. There have been no public attacks on Google from senior officials or formal editorials in the newspaper People's Daily, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece.

Well, that settles that, I guess.... zzzz.... wait, what's with this Financial Times article by Kathrin Hille I'm seeing?

China has signalled a change of approach to the Google crisis, with state media describing the company’s threat to pull out of the country as a political conspiracy by the US government.

Accusations in two newspapers that Washington was using Google as a foreign policy tool were echoed by Chinese government officials on Wednesday....

Global Times, a nationalist tabloid owned by People’s Daily, the Communist party mouthpiece, ran an editorial with the headline: “The world does not welcome the White House’s Google”.

“Whenever the US government demands it, Google can easily become a convenient tool for promoting the US government’s political will and values abroad. And actually the US government is willing to do so,” the piece said.

In an accompanying news story, the paper quoted Wu Xinbo, a political scientist at Fudan University, as saying “the Google incident is not just a commercial incident, it is a political incident”.

NOOO... cognitive complexity!! Run away!! Run away!!!

Actually, it's not that complex.  Indeed, this climactic clip from Chinatown (oh, the irony) addresses this question metaphorically, without the yucky incest factor. This is a public and a private sector dispute. Marc Ambinder's useful tock-tock on events from the U.S. side of things make this clear enough (also, check out this webcast featuring FP's own Evgeny Morozov, as well as this FAQ on the controversy).

The interesting question is what will happen over time. Usually, public-private disputes don't stay that way -- they go for "corner solutions." Either the private sector finds an accommodation with the host government (access to Japanese markets, for example), or the business controversy gets subsumed by high politics (Dubai Ports World).

Question to readers: which way do you think the Google-China feud will go?