Critics have been belittling President Obama’s recent visit with Latin American leaders as a “contrition” and “apology” tour. But a more accurate tag would be “accountability” tour, and it’s long overdue.
During the Summit of the Americas last week, Obama avoided the hectoring condescension that all too often marked American foreign policy during the Bush years. Instead, he demonstrated that the American case can be made with a combination of humility and accountability. This shift in tone happens to be the best path for improving America’s reputation abroad, and for increasing U.S. influence. In fact, it has already had the effect of reducing tensions with Russia, opening doors for collaboration with alienated allies such as Turkey, and isolating inveterate critics of the United States to the margins of international discourse.
Most controversially, Obama last week met and shook hands with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who continues to consolidate his power and tighten control over Venezuelan civil society. Obama also chose not to answer Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s long tirade against U.S. policy. This has led to accusations that Obama has encouraged authoritarian and left-wing leaders in Latin America while discouraging their political opposition. But such complaints fail to grasp that these leaders have always thrived on demonization by Washington.
What is interesting about Obama’s non-confrontational approach to both leaders is that it suggests Obama has learned not to feed the proverbial trolls. On the one hand, Obama has shown a willingness to engage hostile or critical foreign leaders in discussion. But he has also shown no desire to participate in international polemics, perhaps because he has come to see that the U.S. gains nothing from such confrontations. Better still, by largely ignoring the rantings of anti-American zealots, Obama may be able to split persuadable critics of America from those who are reflexively and genuinely anti-American. In an amusing irony, Obama, who is often accused of being an insubstantial rhetorician, has refrained from the long-winded, idealistic bluster on the international stage that his predecessor frequently indulged in. And it may already be paying dividends.
For instance, one of the regular rituals of Organization of American States gatherings is the litany of complaints about Cuba’s forced absence from the summit. But Obama managed to overshadow those complaints with his previously announced easing of travel restrictions to Cuba. As for his meeting with Chávez, far from embarrassing the U.S., it highlighted how much Chávez craves American acceptance. (Chávez tentatively announced the appointment of a new ambassador to Washington, a signal of how isolated Chavez now feels.) And rather than lending credibility and stature to Ortega, Obama ignored him, which is far worse for an anti-American demagogue than a full-throated rebuttal could ever be.
Most important, Obama’s willingness to acknowledge America’s past tendency to dismiss the views of allies and to disrespect legitimate foreign interests reflects a degree of self-confidence that has been oddly lacking in the strongest advocates of U.S. hegemony. This is especially notable for a Democratic president—since Democratic leaders often feel the need to prove their hawkishness. Instead of the almost-obsessive need to celebrate American achievements, Obama’s handling of foreign relations has shown a steady, humble confidence in the United States. This is a refreshing departure from foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, as well as from some of Obama’s own more aggressive campaign rhetoric. In contrast to that familiar Democratic “defensive crouch” on matters of national security, Obama has acted as a leader who feels no need to overcompensate for any perceived weakness and no need to apologize for giving priority to rebuilding damaged international relations with both allies and rivals. Indeed, it seems that the problem Obama’s critics have with him is not that he has been admitting American mistakes, but that he has failed to cringe and apologize to them for pursuing the course of action he thinks best for the United States.