The Crimean problem: Obama’s relativism comes home to roost

It was clear enough during the 2008 campaign but many ignored it. It became more clear as Obama took office and attempted to “engage” with authoritarian regimes all around the world. Even then the commentariat, particularly on the left, did not understand what was going on. One by one the left ignored the implications of Obama’s approach – in Tibet (snubbing the Dalai Lama, in Iran (snubbing the Green Revolution), in Venezuela (cozying up to Chavez), in Cuba (cozying up to Raul Castro), in Egypt (standing by the military), in Syria (erasing his own red line).

But now with the invasion of Ukraine by Putin the results of five years of Obama foreign policy are undeniably clear.

Obama has thought all along he could appease authoritarian regimes and lure them into a fantasy world of global trade and governance. The fact is that despite the end of the cold war more than 20 years ago authoritarian regimes persist and have shown incredible resiliency. China’s neo-stalinist model is working, for the party and its allies in the new entrepreneurial class. And in Iran, Syria and elsewhere, authoritarianism continues to draw widespread support. These authoritarians have no interest in neo-liberal fantasies about free trade and free markets. The volatility and instability of those markets, brought home to hundreds of millions when the western financial system collapsed in 2008, is fuel for the fires of the authoritarian alternative.

To this alternative Obama has no answer. He rode the wave of naive liberal left distaste for global war and politics to office and now that political capital has exhausted itself.

This is a huge problem for the American national security apparatus and for American global economic power as well. The country is led by someone who does not understand what is going on in the world and cannot craft a coherent response to it. He is wedded to a relativist outlook born in the pro-third world neo-stalinist rhetoric of the late 1960s that helped shape his early world view. He will not be able to shed that history or outlook and it is extremely difficult for the institutional apparatus of US power to act coherently when the White House is led by a team that is so intellectually and politically stunted.

But it is an equally large problem for the global left. This global left emerged in the late 1990s, a product too of the end of the Cold War. There was hope in the protests against the WTO and globalization that a new democratic alternative could emerge from below, linking the workers movements of Poland with those of Brazil, the environmental movements of the first world with the movements for agrarian reform in the third world. But since 9/11 that nascent left has spun this way and that completely disoriented by the continued health of authoritarian regimes. Thus the left has become largely only an anti-war left and sometimes worse, offering apologies for the behavior of regimes like those of Syria and Iran and no doubt now in defense of Putin. So much for the defenders of Pussy Riot.

The left must firmly declare its opposition to authoritarianism wherever it appears. To do so is not to give comfort to the war mongers on the right. Instead it will help establish the left as a credible alternative to US unilateralism. From that position the left must then begin to articulate a new foreign policy for the US based in our own deeply held democratic instincts and institutions. I began one such approach with the call for a new “Solidarity Doctrine” here.

The risks of the new era are now clear to all – the statist authoritarianism is in a clash to the death with western market fundamentalism. Neither can win but they can both destroy.

As I said in 2012:

“We have the technological and economic resources to solve these problems and build healthier alternatives. We know the institutional framework – democracy and freedom – that must be in place for those resources to be effective. Instead of developing a foreign policy that matches our resources with that institutional framework, we have instead used the crude tools of neo-conservative intervention or the dangerously naive relativism of spent late-60s ideology. A “Solidarity Doctrine” offers a new approach.”