By Tom Switzer
WHEN Barack Obama replaced George W. Bush in the White House, it was assumed the character of US foreign policy would change dramatically. In the new era, Washington's conciliatory posture would mean more prestige and power. Yet, two years later, the US President has failed to translate his personal popularity into more US authority and legitimacy across the globe.
Take the stand-off on the Korean peninsula. Obama had hoped a more conciliatory approach might encourage Pyongyang to relinquish its nuclear weapons program. But diplomatic overtures hardly discouraged the North from kicking out the inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, detonating a second nuclear facility and igniting tensions with the South.
All of this is a reminder that, however unhinged he may be, Kim Jong-il recognises his weapons are the only sure-fire way to get other members of the six-party talks to offer aid. It is also a reminder of the limits to US power, regardless of who occupies the White House.
Nor is North Korean intransigence an isolated example of the erosion of US standing in the world. Consider this month's G20 meeting in Seoul. Obama and his Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, failed to achieve any of their goals on deficit spending, easy money and exchange rate policies. Worse, other world leaders, most notably the Germans and Chinese, repudiated their solution to have the Fed pump out $600 billion of extra liquidity to devalue the greenback.
The concern is that such efforts will distort trade, create bubbles, prompt other nations to engage in similar devaluations and set the scene for more global economic instability. Meanwhile, the South Koreans rebuffed Obama's efforts to revise a bilateral free-trade deal.
Consider, too, last year's G20 and NATO summits in London and Strasbourg. Again, Obama failed to convince leaders about the wisdom of the US position on the financial crisis and the Afghanistan war. Crowds on European streets treated the new President like a Hollywood star. But many leaders, most notably French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, rejected Obama's requests to commit more troops to the south of Afghanistan, where most of the fighting against the Taliban was taking place.
They also opposed his call for more billions to stimulate the EU economy against the global recession. Obama did not appreciate that Europeans had reached a threshold in deficit spending that they dared not cross, lest it severely damage the euro and the central bank.
Perhaps nothing better demonstrates the decline of US prestige and influence than Washington's failure to lead on climate change. When he won the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, Obama said: "We will be able to look back and tell our children this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal."
Yet after two years of re-ordering priorities in favour of fiscal stimulus, healthcare and the Afghanistan surge, the Obama administration has jettisoned plans to introduce an emissions trading scheme. Not surprisingly, it is in no position to encourage other nations to sign a new global treaty to reduce greenhouse gases at Cancun during the next fortnight. If congress, with Democratic super-majorities, could not pass a climate bill so weak it consisted of little but loopholes to the big polluters, the President won't be able to persuade the Chinese and Indians to slash the carbon emissions that sustain their rapid economic growth.
Now, it is true Obama was given a bad hand by the departing George W. Bush, but what has not changed since the Bush era is Washington's loss of credibility and prestige, its diminished authority and standing, and consequently its reduced ability to lead and persuade other powers.
A continuing loss of confidence in the US could have dangerous consequences. Not only could it tempt other states to undermine or ignore Washington's will, it could also mean a leaderless world at a time when global problems are mounting.
Tom Switzer, editor of the Spectator Australia, is a research associate at Sydney University's US Studies Centre.