Asia Times Online this morning carries my report from the Halifax International Security Forum, sponsored by the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Two peculiar charadteristics of the Obama administration’s foreign policy made the event a strange parade. The first is that Obama runs his administration out of the Blackberry in his vest pocket. The second is that everything that he has done in foreign policy has failed. The result is a poignant feeling of univeral failure, with no telephone number to call (except Obama’s) to learn what to do next.
United States Defense Secretary Robert Gates is the Mephistopheles of the Barack Obama administration - not because of his gift for intrigue, which is slender, but because of his capacity to personify non-being. “Everything that arises goes rightly to its ruin,” said Goethe’s devil to Faust, “so it would be better for nothing to arise.”
In his November 20 keynote speech to the German Marshall Fund’s (GMF’s) International Security Forum on Friday in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Gates portrayed the man who wasn’t there. That is the secret of his longevity in public office.
Several hundred attendees, including defense ministers and other senior officials of two dozen countries, waited for a hint about the Obama administration’s intentions towards Afghanistan. But the previous week, Obama chose “none of the above” from a list of options assembled by the permanent bureaucracy, so Gates spoke about such pressing matters as a US$45 million grant for Caribbean security, Canada’s counter-terrorism training program in Jamaica, and Guatemala’s interception of a cocaine-laden submersible craft - in short, about nothing.
Nothing is what American and allied officials had to say about items to which the GMF event held public sessions - Iran’s nuclear program, piracy, and the future role of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Cabinet officials, parliamentarians and senior military officers went through the motions of discussing policies to which they had no connection, like drones flying patrol after their beehive was burned. The US government lives in Obama’s BlackBerry. When it goes silent, the orphan drones of the foreign policy establishment fly in aimless patterns.
As a showcase for the foreign-policy thinking of Western governments, the GMF event looked like a Leonid Brezhnev-era butcher shop. There wasn’t much in the glass cases, and what there was, did not seem especially appetizing. That is not the fault of GMF, one of the premier venues for policy vetting, but of its suppliers, the NATO governments.
The GMF focuses on Atlantic issues (it is funded by the German government as a token of gratitude for America’s Marshall Plan economic aid after World War II), but it reaches out to every part of the world that touches on Atlantic interests. A rough gauge of the declining prestige of American policy is the absence of Chinese (as well as Indian and Russian) officials. The conference organizers tried for months, without success, to persuade the Chinese government to send an official.
The trouble is that “nothing” is not mere non-being. What stands against “this something, this cloddish world” is not emptiness, as Mephistopheles explained; it is chaos and corruption, rather, the will to pervert and destroy. When America removes itself from the world scene, chaos creeps back in, and it comes in the guise of corruption. For all its flaws, America is the only world power capable of real altruism. In the absence of American leadership, the rest of the world waits dispiritedly for disaster, making sure to look out for the main chance.