Watching Barack Obama’s recent speech on the end of combat operations
in Iraq, I was struck by how uninspired and disinterested the
president looked. Considering the United States had successfully
liberated 31 million people from tyranny (which he opposed), and
broken the back of al-Qaeda in Iraq through the surge (which he also
opposed), I would have thought the president would have at least been
a bit more animated and proud of his country’s achievements, even
though he was proved spectacularly wrong. He came across in the same
dull fashion when he announced the deployment of 30,000 extra troops
to Afghanistan in a major speech at West Point last December.
Much of the time, President Obama simply fails to inspire the American
people, a key reason why his approval rating continues to fall. Since
taking office, the only occasions when Barack Obama has appeared
really enthusiastic when delivering speeches has been when he’s
addressed foreign audiences, and especially when he’s apologised for
his own country or undercut the idea of American greatness. His
speeches to the Muslim world in Cairo, and his address to the French
and Germans in Strasbourg spring to mind.
Perhaps the best example was his speech in September 2009 to the UN
General Assembly, where he was really in his element. The speech was
rapturously received by his international audience, even though it was
probably his worst address as president from a US national interest
point of view. In his speech, the president threw out decades of
conventional wisdom in US foreign policy, rejected the idea of America
as a unique force for good, and questioned traditional alliances:
In an era when our destiny is shared, power is no longer a zero-
sum game. No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation.
No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over
another will succeed. No balance of power among nations will hold. The
traditional divisions between nations of the South and the North make
no sense in an interconnected world; nor do alignments of nations
rooted in the cleavages of a long-gone Cold War.
President Obama seems increasingly uncomfortable in domestic US
settings, but highly energised when speaking abroad, especially to
audiences that are traditionally anti-American. Which is why, if he
loses in 2012, which is now increasingly likely, he might see the
position of UN Secretary General as a natural fit. Just as Tony Blair
dreamed of the presidency of the European Union, Barack Obama is
probably enamoured with the idea of being at the helm of a big
supranational institution, and may even see it as a bigger stage than
the US presidency. After all, he cares little for American
exceptionalism, is happy to weaken American sovereignty, frequently
humiliates his country before foreign audiences, and is a big admirer
of the United Nations.
If Obama exits the White House in 2012, he will be just 51, with
potentially another two to three decades of politically active public
life ahead of him. In addition to writing a further chapter of his
memoirs, he will undoubtedly be looking for another prestigious post,
particularly on the international stage.
President Obama could in theory become Secretary General Obama, with
adoring audiences at his feet at the United Nations. The adulation he
no longer receives in the United States could be his for the taking at
the UN. Sound improbable? Not for a leader described as the first
“post-American president”, and who is a fervent believer in the power
of multilateralism over the sanctity of the nation state. And in terms
of recent precedent it’s worth noting that Bill Clinton was reportedly
interested in the position during the height of the Oil-for-Food
scandal which threatened to bring down Kofi Annan in the mid 1990’s,
though Annan ultimately clung on to power.
There are however a few major obstacles in the way for Barack Obama if
he chooses to go down the UN route. Would a Republican White House
endorse Obama for UN chief? That would almost certainly be a bridge
too far, and he would have to wait for another Democratic
administration if he wanted to run for UN office. In addition, UN
Secretary Generals are traditionally picked on a regional rotation
basis from non-members of the Security Council, and are generally low
key, lesser known compromise figures, as is the case with incumbent
Ban Ki-Moon. The United Nations has never had an American at its helm,
and if Washington were to propose one there is a good chance Russia,
China or France would exercise their veto.
Still, that might not stop President Obama dreaming of holding the
position, especially when he takes the podium this week to address the
General Assembly in New York for the second time in his presidency.
While Barack Obama is increasingly isolated in his own country and
even within own party, he will always find a warm welcome from the UN
bureaucrats at Turtle Bay.
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