Can He Wow the World Again?

No matter what the president says at the U.N. General Assembly, he’s doomed to disappoint his foreign admirers—and maybe even spark a surge of anti-Americanism.

President Obama's address to the United Nations General Assembly neatly captured his strengths and weaknesses, from his admirable focus on the difficulties involved in meeting global challenges to his easy solipsism. On Tuesday, he delivered a widely praised address on climate change, one that offered a message that was hopeful and urgent in equal measure. In one memorable passage, the president noted the United States “has done more to promote clean energy and reduce carbon pollution in the last eight months than at any other time in our history,” a pointed reminder that his administration represents a sharp break with America’s recent past. On Wednesday, he made the same point with regards to torture in the most irritating manner possible. "For those who question the character and cause of my nation, I ask you to look at the concrete actions we have taken in just nine months." Viewed through a conservative lens, this sounds suspiciously as though Obama is praising himself while condemning all that came before him.

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The highlight of the speech was Obama's insistence that the United States cannot and should not bear the burden of global leadership alone, a "real talk" interlude amidst the diplomatese. Indeed, one could accuse Obama of channeling his right-of-center critics when he said, "those who used to chastise America for acting alone in the world cannot now stand by and wait for America to solve the world's problems alone," an almost perfect restatement of the neoconservative credo. Aiming for Rooseveltian grandeur, Obama described his Four Pillars for the Future, which including the traditional security agenda as well as environmental sustainability and more balanced economic growth. This part of the speech was a success, a judicious mix of toughness and high-minded internationalism. With this speech, Obama may have extended his international honeymoon. But as the president continues to raise the expectations of his most ardent admirers, he is at risk of disappointing them. The end result just might be an upsurge in anti-American sentiment.

Reza Aslan: The Skunk at the U.N.There’s no denying that the president is at his best on the international stage. His gift for reaching across deep divides and healing historical wounds has resonated with audiences from Berlin to Cairo. While the president’s job approval numbers have drifted downward at home, he retains a level of global popularity that few public figures ever reach, popes included. But one of the great ironies of anti-Americanism is that it is precisely the most fervent anti-Americans who are most convinced of America’s tremendous power. As it’s the world’s richest and strongest country, with more than a fifth of global GDP and a military that can topple virtually any government, there are those who believe that America’s failure to solve the world’s most pressing problems is a simple matter of selfishness. When a financial crisis struck East Asia’s fastest-growing economies in the late 1990s, Malaysia’s then-prime minister famously blamed George Soros and a clique of New York-based international bankers for sabotaging a potential rival to the West. Similar rumblings can be heard throughout the world in the wake of the most recent financial crisis, one that has hit the developing world far harder than the strapped American middle class.But of course this reflects an almost ingenuousness, as the United States faces its own serious weaknesses. Our constitutional system is designed to restrain the exercise of power, as Obama has been reminded in the course of the interminable debate over health reform. And our massive debt burden has left American taxpayers in a decidedly ungenerous mood, one that will put the brakes on any effort to finance poverty-fighting and other global efforts. It is this defensive and anxious American middle class that will determine Obama’s political future.

Consider the president’s recent decision to impose tariffs on Chinese tires. Given the strength of protectionist sentiment in the United States, and in particular among rank-and-file Democrats, the proposed 35 percent tariff is hardly the most disastrous proposal. The danger is that what might look like a modest throwaway gesture to American labor unions looks very different to the Chinese masses, many of whom see themselves as the victims of a massive Wall Street swindle that has kept the United States awash in cheap Chinese-made goods while the Chinese have received mountains of worthless American debt in return. The Chinese Communist Party doesn’t have to fear elections, but it is very attuned to rising anti-American resentment and economic nationalism. In a similar vein, Chinese President Hu Jintao gave clear indication in his climate change speech that he considers his country one of the world’s have-nots and that he fully expects to receive generous American assistance in exchange for serious action on the environment. China is already spending almost $600 billion, a staggering sum for a country with an economy still far smaller than that of the United States, to stave off a destabilizing spike in unemployment that would leave tens of millions in poverty. One can fairly accuse American policymakers of lacking empathy for China’s most vulnerable workers.

One of the great ironies of anti-Americanism is that it is precisely the most fervent anti-Americans who are most convinced of America’s tremendous power.

The president will spend most of his energies rallying international leaders on Afghanistan, America’s central security challenge. Over time, the rationale for the American presence has shifted from eradicating Al Qaeda to preventing a total Yugoslavia-style bloodbath in nuclear-armed Pakistan to something in between. The sense that Obama is disengaged from the conflict has deepened the paranoia of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who may or may not have brazenly stolen the country’s recent presidential election. Incredibly, the same president who declared a month ago that the war in Afghanistan is a “war of necessity” is, according to a flurry of news reports, seriously considering abandoning the counterinsurgency strategy he embraced as recently as March of this year. This has led to no small resentment on the part of some of America’s European allies, who’ve maintained a military presence despite ferocious anti-war sentiment at home. Canada, which has sustained a staggeringly high number of casualties, is scheduled to withdraw by the end of 2011. The United States is increasingly shouldering Afghanistan’s security burden alone. And if the counterinsurgency strategy really is rejected in favor of a “lighter footprint,” an approach that was unsuccessfully attempted during the Bush years, rest assured that the United States will be held accountable throughout South Asia as Afghanistan’s chaos and disorder spread. The upside for Obama, if you can call it that, is that rising anti-war sentiment at home will vanish as a political liability.

So which will Obama choose—will he usher in a new era of American global leadership, in which the United States selflessly acts as the defender of international peace and prosperity? Or will he be mindful of his tremendous political vulnerabilities and choose a narrower, more self-interested course of action that will engender lasting distrust? Sadly, it is very hard to imagine that he’ll do both.

Reihan Salam is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the co-author of Grand New Party.