President Obama's speech to the United Nations General Assembly today inspired some predictable reactions. Conservatives decried Obama's appeals to the international community as "post-American" groveling, while liberals rejoiced that Obama had seemed to repudiated Bush-style unilateralism. But David Rothkopf pointed out the speech was as much designed for American as international ears, and was really about Obama negotiating the sometimes disparate demands of his domestic constituents and partners abroad.
Rothkopf explained that, on foreign policy, Obama is locked between two communities with different goals and stakes: the American community he serves and the international community he works within. That is, every move Obama makes resonates in Washington and on the international stage. To advance non-unilateral foreign policy goals, he must work carefully to please both masters and upset neither. It's a delicate position, and one that neither Obama's pro-international liberal boosters nor his pro-unilateral conservative detractors seemed to grasp.
While Barack Obama may have looked statesmanlike at the U.N. podium today and while his rhetoric soared, he is still just an employee of the American people who works in a system of robust checks and balances. (Which is just a nice way of saying he has a Congressional albatross around his neck, a screwed up political climate and a skittish constituency that is ill-informed on many vital international issues.)
On a wide range of the issues he discussed today -- from global economic policy to climate, from arms controls to the role of the U.N. itself -- Obama can lead but he cannot easily make his country follow him any more than he can make the world line up behind him just because he wishes they would. Indeed, the very fact that his views align with the rest of the world on key issues may make them anathema to many Americans.
As a consequence, he will need the international community to help him at home as much as they seek America's help with their issues. In short: Without some early international wins, the world may see the promise of this new era in foreign policy fade quickly away.
This is a hard lesson for foreign leaders to grasp. I have been in meetings in which they requested the United States "make" the Congress do one thing or another. Some simply can't or won't understand how our system works ... or how dysfunctional it is.
Rothkopf, reviewing Obama's speech, concluded, "pay attention citizens of earth, if history is any indicator, this is probably about as good as you are going to get out of an American president."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.