Obama is a Pragmatist, Not Anti-British

News Abroad

Lee P. Ruddin is Roundup Editor for HNN. He lives in England.

There has been much discussion about the president’s religion of late.  According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, a growing number of Americans mistakenly believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim.  The rise from 11 percent (March 2009) to approximately one in five (18 percent) is all the more amazing considering that polling was completed in early August, days before Mr. Obama defended the right of American Muslims to build an Islamic community center two blocks away from where the Twin Towers once stood.  (A poll taken by Time magazine after his remarks shows that 24 percent—or nearly one in four—believe he is a follower of Islam.)

Myths about Obama are not confined to just one side of the Atlantic, however.  An increasing number of Brits believe that the 44th President of the United States is an Anglophobe.  Granted, this pales in comparison with the distressing fact that “Muslim” seems to have become a smear to be debunked.  Yet what Rick Shenkman, the founder and editor-in-chief of HNN, says about matters on one side of the pond goes for those on the other side too:  “The more anxious we become about the future (and we are very anxious right now) the more susceptible millions of us are to myths that make sense of the world.”  In other words, saying Obama is anti-British helps elucidate why the UK’s standing in the world appears to be waning and why it may no longer appear “special.”

In the eighteen months since Obama entered the Oval Office, barely one has passed without the commander in chief’s purported anti-Britishness hitting the headlines.  Reason magazine and the Daily Mail asked readers “Is Obama an Anglophobe?” (June 2010) and “Does Obama have it in for Britain?” (December 2009) respectively.  The London Times ran with:  “Beatings and abuse made Barack Obama’s grandfather loathe the British” (December 2008).  These two questions, to be sure, would not have been asked had it not been for this third headline.  I say this for the simple reason that for those who charge the president with Anglophobia, his memoir, Dreams From My Father, acts as exhibit A with its thirty-five pages devoted to the Mau Mau rebellion.  Talk of Obama’s alleged personal animosity towards Britain has taken up so many column inches that it is hardly surprising 40 percent of those polled by the Guardian felt that “Obama [was] being anti-British” when it came to the Gulf oil spill (June 2010).

Lord Tebbitt, a member of Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet, went further and denounced the president’s “hate campaign against the British” in the pages of the DailyTelegraph.  Yet, just because president 44 shows little evidence of the Anglophilia that led presidents 42 and 43 to deliver neo-Churchillian speeches does not mean he has contempt for the 41st Prime Minister who declared a state of emergency in Kenya in the 1950s.

What is more, the insulting remark made by a senior State Department official following Gordon Brown’s embarrassing reception at the White House in March last year (“There’s nothing special about Britain.  You’re just the same as the other 190 countries in the world.  You shouldn’t expect special treatment”) has little to do with an anti-British prejudice within the Beltway.  As Sir Nigel Sheinwald, the British ambassador, said, the attention given to such remarks is “overdone.”  Rather, it has more to do with Britain being—as one Democratic aide marked—merely “one of the crowd” of countries with which America has a special relationship.

Given the new global dynamic, post-Iraq, where talk of English-speaking peoples and Anglo-Saxon roots have become less important to officials in Washington, it is high time that those in London got used to the fact that they are unexceptional in the eyes of the current administration.  Considering talk of a “new special relationship” with India, it would appear that Foreign Office mandarins have grasped this fact and taken on board the words of Walter Russell Mead. Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, the Henry A. Kissinger senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations says “the nature of the international system and the place of the United States in it will have to be rethought as new powers rise, old ones continue to fade, and attention shifts from the Atlantic to the Pacific.” 

No wonder, then, British-based academics John Dumbrell and Axel R. Schäfer explore this theme in their timely volume, America’s ‘Special Relationships’: Foreign and Domestic Aspects of the Politics of Alliance (2009).  As the editors remind readers, the U.S. enjoys some form of special relationship with the other 191 members of the United Nations.  “America is the only country to which every other country,” they write in the introduction, “no matter how small or how regionally orientated, has to develop a policy.”

Yet two countries stand out in particular:  Russia and China. President Obama has worked hard with his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, meeting seven times in seventeen months to reset the relationship that has been fraught in the past.  “Both sides are pursuing their national interests… Obama and Medvedev are both very pragmatic,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow-based journal Russia in Global Affairs.  Pragmatism goes to the very heart of Obama’s foreign policy and his unsentimental realpolitik is evident in his dealings with Beijing.  “The relationship between the United States and China will shape the 21st century, which makes it as important as any bilateral relationship in the world,” Obama told officials from both countries gathered in the Ronald Reagan Building last summer. 

If truth be told, Obama’s pragmatism has been catching.  The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee said in a recent report that “the foreign policy approach we are advocating is in many ways similar to the more pragmatic tone President Obama has adopted towards the UK.”  Yet the Labour-dominated committee was fundamentally wrong to declare the special relationship to be dead.  Ministers have, in short, misinterpreted prejudice for pragmatism.  You need only recall how Obama views his own country.  His rejection of American exceptionalism concerns former Bush administration official John Bolton so much that he labels Obama “the first post-American president”—not the first American Muslim president, not the first anti-British American president, but “the first post-American president.”

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james joseph butler - 9/14/2010

I agree.

Maarja Krusten - 9/12/2010

Mr. Butler, I have to disagree that Mr. Hamilton taking umbrage at my citation of advances in management theory is a "brou ha nothing." I assume that's what you meant since you posted your comment under mine. It is entirely possible that the Boltons of the world struggle with presidents such as Obama and Clinton who give off a vibe of "yeah, we did some things well and others not so well, it's ok to admit that." The adherents of the "Father Knows Best" school of management wouldn't get that. The modern managers who say, "ok, all, this didn't work out they way we thought. Let's team up and analyze what happen and then brainstorm. What went wrong and why, how can we move forward?" probably find Obama's approach less mystifying or frightening. It mirrors what they do at work -- look for root causes, ask for bottom up as well as top down views, and look for solutions.

Bolton strikes me as the type of manager who would be more comfortable running a top down, minimal dissent operation than a "ok, tell me what I'm missing, let's go around the tabnle" type of one.

james joseph butler - 9/12/2010

This is brou ha nothing has as much to do with Obama's gift of an Ipod to the Queen and the rotation of Churchill's bust out of the Oval Office as it does with substantive foreign policy or management theory.

I live for the day when American presidents can follow Washington's advice regarding foreign affairs; special relationship's are not wise relationships. Of course there's cultural similarities between the UK and the US but since 1783 what special favors do we owe the British? Self interest should always be our first interest.

Maarja Krusten - 9/12/2010

Honda was the company I used to read about in the early 1990s*m not Toyota

Maarja Krusten - 9/12/2010

Mr. Hamilton, let me try some more to reassure you that a focus on outcomes need not be bad nor threatening to Americans. Note that I used changes in management concepts in discussing Mr. Bolton. Archival records may reveal what it was like working for him. News reports have suggested that he may have been a difficult boss in situations where specialists tried to pass on knowledge that did not fit his goals. Generally speaking, that is a short-sighted and old fashioned management practice. “Father knows best” may provide an ego boost to the top down manager but does not always serve the organization or the nation well.

I’ve been in situations where executives gave off a strong “shoot the messenger” and “my way or the highway” vibe. In some instances, being regarded as right or saving face seemed to play too big a role. Process and protocols got in the way of outcomes and solution oriented management, as a result. I’ve also been in situations where brainstorming and knowledge sharing and teamwork were welcomed. This is something that federal managers started to focus on more in the early 1990s, when Peter Drucker’s work and Total Quality Management had some impct. In the best peforming units, in terms of coming up with solutions that served the agencies well, the focus was on “we” not “me.”

In my experience, the latter led to better outcomes than the top down, status oriented model, with which I associate Bolton. My conclusion is that if you don’t worry so much about processes in which the top guy has to save face, you get better outcomes. Because no manager is an expert on everything, he often has a specialist’s view of some things and only a generalist’s rather shallow view of others. His team – his subordinates and subject matter experts – can back fill his knowledge gaps—if he will let them. I see nothing scary in that, as some who has risen in rank to managerial levels. I still remember what it was like to be a frontline worker and never reject their perspective just to save face or prove that “I’m in charge.”

These are principles that can serve the private sector well, too, depending on the business or industry. In fact, much of the federal TQM movement in the 1990s focused on Toyota and other manufacturers who had improved their product by moving away from old, overly hierarchical methods of decision making.

Maarja Krusten - 9/12/2010

I'm curious, in what way might 360 feedback, the seeking of bottom up and as well as top down perspectives, and encouragement of candid feedback within a workplace be threatening to the average American? I just don't understand your point. I'm not talking about due process in the legal sense. I'm talking about brainstorming, teamwork, rewarding rather than shooting the messenger, how to avoid being blindsided as a manaer, Myers-Briggs, Deborah Tanen (whose books even are used in the Texas Attorney General's office to help employees understand communications better). What among those things might you fear, if that is your point? What I'm discussing is no different than couples counseling, where people learn to communicate better and to understand the others' viewpoint. Or AA, which has a twelve step program which includes doing a moral inventory. If couples counseling or AA are not frightening to you, the modern managerial methods I'm discussing shouldn't be either.

R.R. Hamilton - 9/12/2010

You said:

"Where hierachies (sic) and process once ruled (federal governance), solutions and outcomes receive more attention now."

I, too, worked in the federal government in the 1970s -- in Washington, even.

Only a "lifer", like you, can fail to imagine how frightening to the average American is this new emphasis on "outcomes over process". We do NOT agree that "the ends justify the means". Only dictatorships believe that "the rules don't matter if they hinder 'progress'".

To us, the means ARE the ends. And, no, we do not care if the means (a/k/a "due process") make it "tougher" for the bureaucrats to achieve their dreams.

Maarja Krusten - 9/6/2010

An interesting assessment. Thanks for posting this. Since reading this last night, I’ve been thinking about why John Bolton would call Obama the first post-American president. I don’t mean what he publicly said he meant by it—he’s spelled that out himself. I mean why he seized on that phrase.

The easy answer is partisanship—he belongs to the other political party. (Partisanship sometimes leads speakers into hyperbole, as when Bolton said that “Obama does not see the rest of the world as dangerous or threatening to America.” Bolton and the President he served, George W. Bush, had plenty of hyperbole flung at them in the first decade of the 21st century, too, of course.) Another easy answer is—he is vested in the way certain things were done by the administration in which he served and feels compelled to defend them. OK, that’s understandable, too. Both might trap him to some degree, as they do strong partisans on either side of the political divide. But I have to wonder if there might be some other elements at play, some related to age and changing times.

Bolton, like Obama, is a lawyer by training. But he came of age at a different time. He was born in 1948, Obama in 1961. While former associates, including conservative students at Harvard, have praised Obama for the way he dealt with them, Bolton reportedly came in for some criticism for how he handled colleagues at the State Department. Collegiality seems to come more easily to the younger man than the older. It could just be temperament. But it could be that Bolton missed or perhaps simply rejected some of the developments in management theory that emerged during the 1990s, while he worked in advocacy jobs at a law firm and a conservative think tank.

Many modern institutions still retain hierarchical and top down elements – someone has to make the final decisions and be accountable -- but things aren’t quite as siloed and status and rank defined as they once were. Some American institutions have adopted concepts such as bottom up reviews and 360 feedback. Executives seek more feedback, not just from subordinates but from customers, too. Depending on their mission, some agencies, such as the U.S. National Archives, even have turned to crowdsourcing. The less stovepiped and controlled environment can be hard on those a status linked outlook or who areused to the gatekeeper way of doing things.

Even if they weren’t in different political parties, age might lead Bolton to struggle to understand the way Obama frames issues. But I wonder whether his criticism of Obama as post-American plays the same way with younger listeners as it may with some older ones. However well meant, some of what Bolton says and writes seems pitched unnecessarily "old."

Many members of the younger generation of American workers are accustomed to different workplace cultures, with less chest thumping and status based posturing, than people of Bolton's age encountered in the workplace when he was their age. I've seen the changes, myself, I'm three years younger than Bolton and entered federal service in 1973. I've seen the workplace culture within the U.S. federal government change in rhetoric and in some ways of doing things over the last 37 years. Where hierachies and process once ruled, solutions and outcomes receive more attention now. Many managers who've embraced the changes and remained young in spirit have served their nation well, in no small part because they're less likely to be blindsided than some who remained committed to the old ways.