Obama the European?

Barack Obama began his second term as US President with an inaugural address that presented a broad vision of American government.
Ana Palacio
Ana Palacio

Barack Obama began his second term as US President with an inaugural address that presented a broad vision of American government. In Europe, the prevailing reaction highlights that, between the lines, America’s first self-proclaimed “Pacific president” delivered the most “European” inaugural address in recent memory.

Obama’s speech not only embraced the core principles of social democracy as understood in Europe, but also heralded a new era of American engagement in global governance issues. But, notwithstanding Obama’s Euro-enthusiasm, valid questions remain concerning his administration’s foreign policy.

Along with frequent references to America’s founding principles and to the touchstones of US history, Obama presented a vision of society, government, and foreign relations with which most Europeans could identify, including explicit references to women’s rights and, for the first time in such a high-level speech, gay rights.

The address also embraced social welfare (“The commitments we make to each other through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us”) and the idea of fraternité (“preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action”).

For those who see Obama becoming more “European,” the climax of the speech was his mention of the “threat of climate change” – again, for the first time in an American inaugural address. In the same vein, Obama’s pledge to “renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crises abroad” was hailed as another telling sign that Obama’s views coincide with Europe’s. The last reference to international institutions in an inaugural address was President John F. Kennedy’s pledge to support the United Nations in 1961.

But, while Obama’s emphasis on institutions is particularly striking when compared with other major US presidential addresses, the starkest contrast is with British Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech about Europe, delivered two days later.

Cameron’s remarks (“the EU is seen as something that is done to people rather than acting on their behalf”) came closer to the institutional skepticism of Ronald Reagan’s inaugural address in 1981 (“[I]t is not my intention to do away with government,” but “to make it …work with us, not over us”) than to Obama’s “European” vision.

But is Obama’s inaugural address an indication of a renewed vigor for US-backed/led multilateralism?

At the outset of his first administration, Obama spoke of the need “for a global response to global challenges,” which was followed by a move toward multilateral engagement, most notably in Libya. But his administration’s persistent failure to address the crisis in Syria effectively, along with its backseat approach in Mali, suggests that such concerted multilateralism was an exception.

In a recent interview, Obama emphasized America’s “extremely effective” participation in multilateral organizations and its role in developing international rules and norms as successes of his first-term foreign policy. To the extent that an institutional approach was taken, however, it was largely taken outside the framework of formal institutions such as the United Nations. Rather, it highlighted soft or ad hoc structures, such as the Global Counterterrorism Forum, the Open Government Partnership, or the various G’s, particularly the G-20.

The hard truth is that the US remains reluctant to trade its sovereignty for multilateral solutions. Notably, it is not a party to a large number of important international conventions, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (one of only three UN members that has not ratified the CRC).

America’s absence from such instruments has much to do with Congressional opposition, as was seen in the latest attempt to ratify UNCLOS. Nonetheless, there is room for executive action – for example, signing the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Treaty or ratifying the Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court. A second-term shift toward institutional multilateralism would embrace such action. But it appears that such an approach may not be in the cards.

Obama’s treatment of global warming in his inaugural address is telling in this regard, because, other than a passing reference to preserving “our planet,” the issue of climate was dealt with as an internal matter. The impetus for focusing on the environment was framed as a need to counter the threat of fires, drought, and “more powerful storms.” This policy rationale was underscored by his warning that America “cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries.” The rallying cry was national competition, not international cooperation.

Obama’s silence with regard to multilateral efforts to combat global warming is notable. Given the rapidly approaching 2015 deadline to negotiate a new binding international agreement on climate change under the Durban Platform, a US administration that supports institutional solutions to global problems is vital.

It remains to be seen whether Obama’s inclusion of institutional renewal in his inaugural address marks a turning point in America’s approach to multilateralism. In the end, we might end up with four more years of American resistance to binding international mechanisms. If the international community is to produce “a global response to global challenges,” Obama must translate his call for institutional renewal into meaningful action.