Obama’s use of Language and Symbolism is Shaping his Foreign Policy Legacy
On January 29, 2002, George Bush defined Iran as part of an “Axis of Evil,” a group of nations (Iran, Iraq, North Korea) that most threatened the security of the United States. As soon as I heard the words I knew that even if U.S. foreign policy did not alter one bit from the course set by President Bill Clinton, this speech would change everything.
Clinton had enjoyed steady progress with Iran and North Korea. Iran had elected a reformist president (Khatami), who had called for a “dialogue between nations.” North Korea had backed down from its aggressive stance towards South Korea, and had temporarily ceased its nuclear weapons ambitions. Iraq seemed contained. Progress was slow and steady, but undeniably present. After Mr. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union speech, American blood was spilled on Iraqi soil, the nuclear reactors restarted in Korea, and Ahmadinejad became president in Iran.
As Jessica Mathews, from the Carnegie Institute (publishers of Foreign Policy) put it, she knew right away that this move by George Bush would “strengthen the extremists and weaken those who we want to strengthen, in both Iran and North Korea.”
Symbolism matters. One need not look further that the recent uproar over Confederate History Month to see that, even in America, words can break bones.
Few Presidents seem to understand this more than Barack Obama. Arguably the only politician whose logo is internationally famous, Obama became a symbol himself during the 2008 presidential campaign. “Hope” and “change” can hardly be uttered in America without calling to mind the 44th President. His command of symbolism has also played a major role in his foreign policy, as demonstrated in the past month.
On April 8th, President Obama signed the New START treaty (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) in Prague. This move renewed the vow to limit the total amount of operationally deployed nuclear warheads to 1,550. While significant, this move is highly symbolic, as 1,550 warheads is clearly enough to end life as we know it (or, at least life as we could blog about it). Also, President Obama’s new Nuclear Posture Review states that the United States will not “use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.” So if you don’t have nukes, and you aren’t the remainder of the Axis of Evil, we won’t nuke you. Again, this is a highly symbolic move, and breaks with Bush’s policies, but the probability of the U.S. using nuclear options against non-nuclear states has always been incredibly slim.
Then, on April 12, Obama opened his nuclear summit, where he convinced “46 countries [...] to sign on to a plan to put the world’s nuclear material beyond the reach of terrorists within four years.” But the contract was non-binding, and few ideas for execution of such a plan were agreed upon. Once again, the administration has stressed symbol over substance. During the summit, the Treasury Department delayed a report that would have labeled China a “currency manipulator” so that it did not correspond with ongoing negotiations on Iran, currency, or nukes. In other words, the Obama administration believes, for now, that symbolism and diplomacy will get them further on currency and on Iran than the mechanisms of state at its disposal.
Obama seems to work with the power players (Israel, China) while also making symbolic efforts to bolster their opponents (Tibet, the Palestinians). While Obama has made attempts to appease China, on the other hand when Obama met with the Dalai Lama in February, a highly symbolic move that angered China and encouraged those fighting for their freedom against the communist state. However, he did so without the usual pomp-and-circumstance that would normally accompany such a meeting. In fact, there was only one picture taken, and Obama looks like he’s doing all the talking. In the Holy Land, when Israel announced its expansion of settlements into East Jerusalem, Obama met with Netanyahu but refused to have a state dinner. Clearly, Obama is willing to use symbolism as a double-edged sword in order to navigate tricky diplomatic quagmires and still advocate for U.S. interests, even when those interests are competing.
He’s used this tactic with Iran, as he continues to have an open door policy with the Islamic Republic, all the while working to get censorship free-internet access to the government opposition, the Green Movement, and work with the international community on increasing sanctions to stop Iran’s nuclear program. Obama’s approach is to use symbolism as capital, an inexhaustible currency. But will it work?
Not alone. The power structures of the world, long term political battles, and distinct cultural differences are unlikely to be solved by state dinners (or the lack thereof) or any other symbolic gestures made by President Obama, or any other person or nation. However, the significance of some of these symbolic and linguistic changes may point to a change in direction, if ever so slight, for U.S. foreign policy at large. With recent developments in Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama seems to be pursuing a significantly less imperialistic and expansionist policy than his predecessor. In the past, America has far too often settled disputes or disadvantageous situations abroad through direct force or other intervention. Using symbolism and diplomacy will likely be much slower to affect change, but it will be less likely to create the kind of ugly backlash that U.S. history is so full of in the last 50 years.
Perhaps, then, the problem becomes one of expectation. If the President is expected to tone down imperialist rhetoric, stop invading and interfering in other nations, and lead the U.S. into a more isolationist stance, then his reliance on symbolic capital should be praised. If the expectation is that Obama will solve the world’s problems, then this tactic (if followed) should be condemned, and we should expect another 100 years of American imperialism. I’d rather try the former than revisit the latter, and maybe we’ll be pleasantly surprised when some of Obama’s diplomatic skills actually produce a more peaceful world.Posted in Featured, Foreign Policy, Iran, Middle East, Nuclear Proliferation, Politics