No one would accuse Barack Obama of speaking softly, but he carries a heckuva big shtick. The shtick was audibly on display in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech last week. The speech has won the plaudits of many conservatives; at times Obama actually sounded like he was representing the United States.
But the speech was composed of many threads, not all expertly woven together. Indeed, the speech culminated in a statement of Obama’s law of love. In his peroration Obama avowed that the love that was preached by Gandhi and King “must always be the North Star that guides us on our journey.” Heavy, man.
Before pointing to his North Star, Obama defended his policy of “engagement.” It is a policy that has been on display most notably with his deference to “the Islamic Republic of Iran,” which has not yet tired of sticking its thumb in Obama’s eye. Thank goodness for the North Star that is guiding Obama on his journey or he might do something about that thumb in his eye.
Obama prefaced his comments on “engagement” with an imprecation: “Let me also say this[.]” It is a call to attention that should not be ignored. Here is how Obama defended his policy of engagement vis a vis Iran and other enemies of the United States:
The promotion of human rights cannot be about exhortation alone. At times, it must be coupled with painstaking diplomacy. I know that engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation. But I also know that sanctions without outreach — condemnation without discussion — can carry forward only a crippling status quo. No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door.
In light of the Cultural Revolution’s horrors, Nixon’s meeting with Mao appeared inexcusable — and yet it surely helped set China on a path where millions of its citizens have been lifted from poverty and connected to open societies. Pope John Paul’s engagement with Poland created space not just for the Catholic Church, but for labor leaders like Lech Walesa. Ronald Reagan’s efforts on arms control and embrace of perestroika not only improved relations with the Soviet Union, but empowered dissidents throughout Eastern Europe. There’s no simple formula here. But we must try as best we can to balance isolation and engagement, pressure and incentives, so that human rights and dignity are advanced over time.
Like Obama’s articulation of the law of love, this formulation too achieves a certain vapid gravity. Obama’s brief expression of respect for his designated predecessors is interesting. But each of these examples errs in its own way. One wonders if he knows what he’s talking about, or if he is comfortable making obviously sophistic arguments. Both ignorance and apathy undoubtedly figure into this passage.
Take the case of Nixon’s famous opening to China as an example. Does any serious historian suggest that it had anything to do with human rights, as this passage implies? Obama omits any mention of the most prominent elements of the thinking that lay behind it. The opening was a pure exercise in power politics.
Kissinger’s long discussion in his memoirs of the strategic backdrop against which the opening to China played out makes this point unmistakably. Referring to the Soviet clashes with China along their border, Kissinger writes: “American leaders such as Nixon, who basically accepted the principles of equilibrium, might not be able to implement their conviction that the United States had a vital interest in preventing the dismemberment or humiliation of China — even though it was not an ally, had recently become an enemy and showed no prospect of becoming a democracy.” Kissinger recounts his discussion with Zhou Enlai explaining America’s “vital interest in the global balance of power in general and in China’s territorial integrity in particular,” possibly requiring America’s resistance to Soviet challenges to China’s territorial integrity “even when there was no legal obligation to do so.”
Obama’s policy of engagement has not carried any payoff in the promotion of human rights. On the contrary, it has been predicated on downgrading human rights as an American concern. It has accordingly rendered him mute and then equivocal in the face of the outrages in Iran.
Obama’s slighting of the Dalai Lama recalls the worst of detente, when Kissinger persuaded President Ford not to meet with Solzenitsyn. But what does Obama have to show for his deference to Chinese sensibilities? Obama’s forays on the world stage so far have been an exercise in alienating friends and amusing enemies.
UPDATE: Gary Schmitt focuses on the same passage in Obama’s speech and addresses each of Obama’s historical examples. Schmitt writes that “there was a particularly sophistic element to the speech when it came to human rights and America’s concern with promoting them,” a comment that I echoed above.