The words came from a guy who makes a good living selling somewhat absurd and quite expensive European cars to insecure strivers in a dying city in the Rust Belt – “There’s an ass for every seat.” Yep, you can get a hundred ten grand for that orange sedan with the trick transmission that the factory stuck you with. It’s a matter of waiting for the right oddball to show up, and then the negotiations – the game of good-cop bad-cop, where the sales guy says he’d love to close the deal at the price you want, but he has to check with his manager, who’s a nasty man under a lot of pressure and might not go for it. He leaves to talk to his boss. You sit. You know he’ll come back and say he’s sorry, but he just couldn’t talk the big guy into it, but maybe if we extend the payments so you pay the higher price over a few more years of the same monthly payments, or you go for some options – puce floor mats or some such thing – we can work out something. You know there’s no boss, or if there is, he isn’t in today – your sales guy went out back for a smoke. But you play along. It’s a ritual. It’s how things are done. It’s a bit tiresome but there’s no alternative.
Such experiences leave most American adults with a bad feeling about negotiations. Negotiation is always a zero-sum game where one party loses. They know they’ve been screwed over and they’re angry, and resentful, and a bit humiliated, even if they try to put a good face on it. But they lost. The other party gloats, discretely if possible. They won. Sure, it would be cool if you knew the actual dealer cost, and any incentives to him that were in play, and could say, look, you need to show at least a little profit, and I want the car at a reasonable price, so let’s sit down and figure out what’s best for both of us – it may not work out, but it’s worth a shot. That’ll never happen. It’s too radial an approach.
But it’s not unheard of. That’s sort of the diplomat’s approach, and the diplomatic model is simple – you have your national needs and this and that where there can be no compromise, or you’d be tossed out of power, and so do we, but let’s see if there are areas where we can each get at least some of what we both think is necessary, without a war or any such silliness. It may not work out, but it’s worth a shot.
Does that sound strange? It should. Over the eight years of the latest Bush administration, that model was abandoned – there were few diplomatic negotiations of any sort, and what they called diplomacy was that zero-sum take-it-or-leave-it game where someone was going to publically cave in – bow to our superiority or something – and do what we said. They would be submissive and humiliated, and we’d strut about and gloat, as the thought was that such gloating would please the American people – feeling all victimized and abused by the world – and thus keep the folks who would never compromise, and who, in fact, would never talk with the other side – as that would make them think they were worth something – admired and in power. If the other side didn’t cave in, it was war – and if no one joined us in the war, well, we’d take care of things ourselves. Hell, what can you do if the other side won’t do the right thing?
The French, and most of the rest of the world, didn’t get it. Most American adults, however, having at one time or another found that they needed to buy a car, and remembering how that went, found this to be sensible, or if not sensible, at least understandable – they had a model in mind, they knew the drill. That’s just the way things were – humiliate or be humiliated. There’s an ass for every seat.
It does seem odd that we elected Obama president. He doesn’t seem to think that way, given his first stab at dealing with the Russians:
Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev confidently committed to a year-end deal to slash nuclear stockpiles by about a third on Monday, but the U.S. leader failed to crack stubborn Kremlin objections to America’s missile defense plans – a major stumbling block to such an agreement.
Both men renewed pledges to pull U.S.-Russian relations out of the dismal state into which they had descended during the eight years of the Bush administration. And to that end, they signed a series of agreements and joint statements designed to enliven and quicken contacts on a broad range of issues – including cooperation on Afghanistan, a key Obama foreign policy objective.
Obama said the leaders both felt relations had “suffered from a sense of drift. President Medvedev and I are committed to leaving behind the suspicion and rivalry of the past.”
His host expressed similar good will.
What about humiliating them? Or looking Putin in the eyes and seeing his soul – and declaring he’s really one of us? Putin must have giggled about that more than once in the Kremlin.
This time it was old-school diplomacy, with all the cards on the table, to see what could be done, and what couldn’t:
“This is the first but very important step in improving full-scale cooperation between our two countries, which would go to the benefit of both states,” the Russian leader said. But he injected a note of caution, saying discussions so far “cannot remove the burden of all the problems.”
There was no statement of Russian readiness to help the United States persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions, even though Obama’s top Russia adviser, Michael McFaul, told reporters in a post-meeting briefing that Iran dominated the two leaders’ private meeting that opened the summit.
In fact, Obama said the meetings had been “frank” – that’s diplomatic code for difficult. Each side had to lay out where, for their own survival, they had to hold the line. But there was wiggle-room:
While Medvedev insisted on Monday that a replacement to the keystone START I nuclear arms reduction treaty, which expires Dec. 5, must be linked to Russian concerns about the U.S. missile defense program in Eastern Europe, it remained unclear if the Kremlin was prepared to scuttle the negotiations over that issue.
Gary Samore, Obama’s chief adviser on weapons of mass destruction and arms control, told reporters he did not believe the Russians were prepared to walk away.
“I think at the end of the day – because our missile defense does not actually pose a threat to Russia’s strategic forces – I think they’ll be prepared to go ahead without trying to extract a price on missile defense.”
We’ll see – but an agreement to reduce nuclear arms by a third is nothing to sneeze at. No one expected that. That old-school diplomacy seems to work. Medvedev called the plan a “reasonable compromise.” That had those here who loved the Bush approach worried. If the other side says something is reasonable, then we must have caved and Obama didn’t extract the humiliating concessions that a strong president would have – so we’ve been humiliated.
Maybe so, but things went well:
Among the deals meant to sweeten Obama’s two days of talks here and show progress toward resetting U.S.-Russian ties was a joint statement on Afghanistan. It included a deal to allow the United States to transport arms and military personnel across Russian land and airspace into Afghanistan. …
The presidents outlined other areas in which they said their countries would work together to help stabilize Afghanistan, including increasing assistance to the Afghan army and police, and training counternarcotics personnel. A joint statement said they welcomed increased international support for upcoming Afghan elections and were prepared to help Afghanistan and Pakistan work together against the “common threats of terrorism, extremism and drug trafficking.”
Among other side agreements was the resumption of military cooperation, suspended after Russia invaded neighboring Georgia last August and sent relations into a nosedive.
Well, that is a problem. Obama made it clear that we would “never accept Russia’s contention that South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another breakaway Georgia region, are no longer part of Georgia.” And Putin is none too happy with Georgia’s cozy relationship with the United States – and Georgia wants to join NATO, of all things. But you remember McCain – we are all Georgians now. Were McCain president, he’d not even talk to the Russians, about anything at all, until they gave in on Ossetia and Abkhazia, and were humbled into saying they were wrong all along, and appropriately humiliated. It’s matter of principle, and would show our strength and resolve. This Moscow trip must have made McCain weep bitter tears – we have a weak president.
Yeah, but we got some stuff done while one hot issue was set aside for the moment. That is tragic, or not, depending on how you see everything, as a zero-sum game, or not. If someone always has to lose, well, someone always loses. And we are, generally, a competitive and not cooperative people. The winners take all, and everyone laughs at the pathetic losers. It’s the American way. Competition and our mostly unregulated free market made us a great nation, after all. Everyone knows that.
But as Leonid Ragozin and Igor Prokopyev report in Newsweek-Russia, the Russians are also looking out for themselves:
Translators were baffled by Vladimir Putin’s recent response to President Obama. Leading up to his summit in Moscow, Obama had announced that the Russian premier had one foot in the old way and one foot in the new. “We cannot stand vraskoryachku,” Putin replied in a steely voice. This rarely used idiom means “an awkward position,” but even native speakers didn’t quite know how to visualize it. For some, it evoked nonconsensual sex. For others, it suggested bowleggedness. The best translation was posted by a BBC Russian Service producer on Facebook: one leg here, one leg there, with the bottom asking for trouble.
The mysterious elocution came in handy for reporters wondering what to write about on the eve of Obama’s visit to Russia, as they tried to decipher the true nature of U.S.-Russian relations. While the countries gave every appearance of concordance at Monday’s meeting, the reality is that they are vraskoryachku – neither friends nor enemies. In truth, they hardly have a relationship at all.
So you recognize that – they are who they are, not embryonic Americans. You proceed with caution, and you’re severely pragmatic. You get done what you can. That seems to be how Obama works.
Andrew Sullivan points out that that is driving a lot of people crazy:
The question buzzing around Washington’s chattering classes is the following: is the actual historical moment that Obama inherited – unforeseen in its scope and danger this time last year – the right moment for these instincts? Are his caution and delegation a liability in a period of a dysfunctional Congress, a near-psychotic Republican party and a potentially lethal global depression? After a period in which the American executive claimed vast powers and institutionalized torture and abuse of suspected terrorists, is it enough simply to forget and forgive the past and try to glue onto the existing system more checks and balances and decency? Is the conservatism we sought, in other words, adequate to the radicalism that may now be required? And is the president being too deferential to Congress in seizing the reins?
In short, is this man too damned reasonable?
This critique is echoed on both left and right. The right, in its dominant neoconservative vein, is frustrated with his disdain for classic American moralizing and saber-rattling at a moment such as Iran’s stymied green revolution. The left wishes he had been more radical in taking on Wall Street, insisting on a single-payer healthcare reform and a full-bore carbon tax. Harper’s Magazine has even labeled him Barack Hoover Obama: personally brilliant, humane and pragmatic but simply not daring enough for the moment he is facing.
And Andrew Bacevich, the professor of history and international relations at Boston University, worries about Obama’s strategic blind spot:
“Are there not other alternatives than sending our armies to chew barbed wire in Flanders?” During the bitter winter of 1914-15, the first lord of the Admiralty posed this urgent question to Britain’s prime minister. The eighth anniversary of 9/11, now fast approaching, invites attention to a similar question: Are there not other alternatives than sending our armies to choke on the dust of Iraq and Afghanistan?
The first lord of the Admiralty in question was Winston Churchill, and his alternative was to break the stalemate, more arms, an amphibious assault against the Dardanelles, and support the infantry with tanks – do something to get beyond that stupid trench warfare. But his new ideas didn’t work out:
Instead, they prolonged the war and drove up its cost. When the guns finally fell silent in November 1918, “victory” left Britain economically and spiritually depleted. Revolution wracked much of Europe. And the seeds of totalitarianism had been planted, producing in their maturity an even more horrendous war.
Bacevich sees us heading the same way:
Fixated with tactical and operational concerns, they ignored matters of strategy and politics. Britain’s true interest lay in ending the war, not in blindly seeing it through to the bitter end. This, few British leaders possessed the imagination to see.
Fast-forward to now:
The Long War launched by George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11 has not gone well. Everyone understands that. Yet in the face of disappointment, what passes for advanced thinking recalls the Churchill who devised Gallipoli and godfathered the tank: In Washington and in the field, a preoccupation with tactics and operations have induced strategic blindness.
As President Obama shifts the main U.S. military effort from Iraq to Afghanistan, and as his commanders embrace counterinsurgency as the new American way of war, the big questions go not only unanswered but unasked. Does perpetuating the Long War make political or strategic sense? As we prepare to enter that war’s ninth year, are there no alternatives?
Bacevich offers some.
First, the Long War may be long, but it should not get any bigger. The regime-change approach – invade and occupy to transform – hasn’t worked; simply trying harder in some other venue (Somalia? Sudan?) won’t produce different results. In short, no more Iraqs.
Second, forget the Bush Doctrine of preventive war: no more wars of choice; henceforth only wars of necessity. The United States will use force only as a last resort and even then only when genuinely vital interests are at stake.
Third, no more crusades unless the American people buy in; expecting a relative handful of soldiers to carry the load while the rest of the country binges on consumption is unconscionable. At a minimum, the generation that opts for war should pay for it through higher taxes rather than foisting a burden of debt onto their grandchildren.
And he goes on – “the key to keeping America safe is to defend it, not to project American muscle to obscure places around the world.” And of course promote the spread of freedom and democracy, but try “modeling freedom rather than trying to impose it.”
It’s all very sensible, but not much fun. No one gets humiliated.
But after Obama’s Cairo speech we all should have understood what was up. Or so says Carlin Romano, who teaches philosophy and media theory at the University of Pennsylvania and is the literary critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer (they do read there too). Reporting from Vienna, he suggests Obama is actually something quite new, our Philosopher in Chief – an odd notion, but he recommends a speech a week later by the Anglo-Dutch scholar Ian Buruma, a professor of human rights and journalism at Bard College, which makes that argument.
In the elegant Wiener Börsensäle, the historic former stock exchange in a city whose vulnerability to Islam symbolized tensions between Europe and Muslim culture for centuries, Buruma spoke on “The Virtues and Limits of Cosmopolitanism,” presenting sophisticated context for an idea at the core of Obama’s approach in Cairo.
Ah, cosmopolitan. People do, of course, have trouble with both the drink – vodka, Cointreau or Triple Sec, cranberry juice, and fresh-squeezed lime juice or sweetened lime juice (all girly stuff) – and the concept:
Cosmopolitanism is a “tricky” notion, Buruma observed. In one regard, we think of it as “a positive term denoting a high degree of cultivation and even glamour.” We recognize, as per the Oxford English Dictionary, that it connotes “ease in many different countries and cultures.” In another regard, Buruma noted, the “same word, spoken with a sneer and contempt,” and often proceeded by “bourgeois” or “rootless,” played an ugly role in Nazi and Soviet propaganda. In that slanderous argot, the “cosmopolitan,” being “of too many places,” simply “cannot be one of us” – whoever we may be.
But that’s what Obama tried to pull off in Cairo:
There he expressed what lies behind many of his surface “nonpartisan” positions: a cosmopolitan ideal of the American thinker. The thinker, that is, committed to cooperative conversation, a figure first powerfully delineated by Richard Rorty in his neopragmatist works, then echoed in Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (W.W. Norton, 2006) by Kwame Anthony Appiah, the Ghanaian-American philosopher whose leadership in many American high-cultural organizations parallels Obama’s own ascent.
As Appiah noted in his book, cosmopolitanism dates back to the fourth-century Cynics, who “rejected the conventional view that every civilized person belonged to a community among communities.” Stoics from Cicero to Marcus Aurelius picked up the idea, as did St. Paul (“There is neither Jew nor Greek … for ye are all one in Christ Jesus”) and thinkers from Kant to Arendt and Derrida. For Appiah, two strands “intertwine in the notion of cosmopolitanism. One is the idea that we have obligations to others, obligations that stretch beyond those to whom we are related by the ties of kith and kind, or even the more formal ties of a shared citizenship. The other is that we take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular human lives.”
And Romano concedes we may not be comfortable with that at all:
The special “trickiness” of cosmopolitanism for an American president is to shape it in the face of a double challenge: maintaining pride in the allure of America’s own values, while resisting the bluster of academic Americanists who often exuberantly exalt our pluses over our minuses. Even a relatively skeptical sort, such as British-born Simon Schama in his The American Future: A History (just published in the United States by Ecco), gushes over America’s “perennial capacity for reinvention” and declares that the “American future is all vision, numinous, unformed, lightheaded with anticipation.”
Romano runs through a number of folks saying such things, but suggests something else is going on:
Obama plainly agrees with some of those views, but he proved subtler on his five-day international trip. He signaled what makes us wonderful without declaring that we’re wonderful. Leaving business moguls and Americanists at home, he relied on an entourage of ideas. The New York Times and others have joked that Obama increasingly sounds like a professor in chief, and there’s truth to that. But professors need students to sign up for their courses and agree to be graded. Obama, by once again sticking his neck out in front of free agents – a foreign audience – continued the process of fashioning himself as both philosopher in chief and cosmopolitan in chief.
The first part of Obama’s Cairo teach-in combined the best of rhetoric and philosophy. In the shrewd tradition of Isocrates and Aristotle, the president softened up his audience in Cairo University’s ornate auditorium by quoting the Koran and dispensing rich praise. He related how Islamic culture had given us “the order of algebra, our magnetic compass and tools of navigation, our mastery of pens and printing, our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed.” Despite next launching into a sustained “on the one hand, on the other hand” structure, he sidestepped what might be called the Bernard Lewis counterpoint to Islam: “But what have you done for us lately?”
Obama balanced almost every point in favor of Israel as a Jewish state with one that favored Palestinian Arabs. That his audience didn’t immediately absorb the lesson in evenhandedness was apparent. The audience applauded only points directly in Islam’s or the Arab world’s self-interest. Though Obama observed that “the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied,” he chose not to add that “the day this audience applauds such a point, made in the interest of others, is the day peace will come.” That might have driven home his point far more strongly. But it would not have been Obama – cool, polite, generous, cosmo.
But Romano notes Obama did lay down some rules for philosophical discourse by saying this – “We must say openly the things we hold in our hearts and that too often are said only behind closed doors. There must be sustained effort to listen to each other, to learn from each other, to respect one another, and to seek common ground.”
At its core, his teaching was ethical and political, using the intellectual tools of logic to illuminate hypocrisy and contradiction: “None of us should tolerate these extremists,” he said. “They have killed in many countries. They have killed people of different faiths – but more than any other, they have killed Muslims. Their actions are irreconcilable with the right of human beings, the progress of nations, and with Islam. The holy Koran teaches that whoever kills an innocent, it is as if he has killed all mankind.”
Without weighing the pros and cons of American egalitarianism, Obama simply affirmed that “a woman who is denied an education is denied equality.” Countering Machiavelli without mentioning Madison, he spoke straight to the prince: “You must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party.” Weaving the ethical, political, and pragmatic together, Obama told Palestinians that if they forswear violence and take the high road, à la Gandhi and King, they will get their state.
Romano says Obama seems into something like existential pragmatism with things like “Our history has always been the sum total of the choices made and the actions taken by each individual man and woman.” Camus would get it.
So this is something new:
Obama’s most singular philosophical breakthrough was to artfully project the cosmopolitan idea that the U.S. president must care about non-Americans. True, Obama observed months ago that he’s the president of the United States, not the president of China, and understandably must put the needs and safety of Americans first. But to an extraordinary extent, Obama effectively announced that the U.S. president, because of the United States’ effect on and involvement with the rest of the world, must think of other global citizens as constituents.
A truly cosmopolitan culture permits its members to choose different styles of life and thought, including antiquated ones, as long as they don’t harm the neighbors. Obama, like no president before him, has notified the rest of the world that the United States will continue to export its philosophy, ethos, and political theory – but through conversation, not declamation, seeking free adoption, not grudging acquiescence.
So Romano says we seem to have a Philosopher President and Cosmopolitan-in-Chief.
Can we deal with that? Or are we set in our ways, too used to tricky salesmanship, too terrified of being screwed over and left behind, and happy enough to humiliate others and gloat, as that seems best?
Right now it’s like living inside the play, Death of a Salesman – with John McCain as Willie Loman. Think back on that play. Think of the neoconservatives and Bush. The old ways die. And maybe it wasn’t ever about good-cop bad-cop manipulation of others.
So, have a cosmopolitan. But not the drink – they’re awful.