Tuesday 2 June 2009

Obama in Cairo: a neo-prog moment?

Expectations are high for Barack Obama's speech in Cairo on Thursday .

At one level, they are bound to be met in signalling a new chapter in America's relationship with the Muslim world. It is quite an easy task to make a speech which is different, particularly in tone but also in content, from what the Bush administration was heard to be saying.

I would anticipate a spirited defence of human rights as universal values, not western values (where my hunch is that Obama may well declare for Amartya Sen against Samuel Huntingdon and the idea of a clash of civilisations). I expect, too, a staunch commitment to the beliefs and necessity of an internationalist America, tempered by a recognition of the possibility of mutual misunderstandings and caricatures, a commitment to debating disagreements democratically in an atmosphere of mutual respect - and a challenge to others to meet that challenge too.

But we shall see whether this proves to be a slightly motherhood and apple pie effort - replacing 'for us or against us' with a Kennedyesque spirit of dialogue and partnership, Or whether Obama can make an international speech prepared to engage with the difficult complexities in the way that his campaign speech on race in Philadelphia did so. I expect it is more difficult to do this on the international stage - and that Obama may be wary of offering too many fireworks on his first really significant international speech as President.

Michael Tomasky asks a good question - what will Obama say about Mubarak?

Justin Webb reports that diplomatic form wins out on that one: the President suggests that the Egyptian President is a force for stability and good.

Whether stability is trumps is central to the foreign policy debate between realists and neo-cons. Liberal internationalists are torn on this question - being wary of sacrificing justice for peace, yet insisting that justice depends on a rule-based international order and so being sceptical of shortcuts to legitimacy.

But I am not convinced by Tomasky's argument that this makes liberal internationalism is "a sort of realism with sugar on top".

It is not simply that liberal internationalists have a broader conception of the national interest than realists, though they do, but also because realism depends on making an iron distinction between domestic politics (which can be value-based) and the realpolitik of international affairs. Yet this is no longer tenable in an age of deep interdependence. Take climate change. Perhaps more significantly, take the deep damage done by the charge of double standards over issues like Guantanamo. Yet realism in the Macchiavelli tradition offers a recipe for double standards being essential and necessary - so it has nothing to say when taking this advice proves deeply damaging to national reputations, influence and so interests.

Liberal internationalism finds that pursusing the internationalist interest is increasingly a core strategic national self-interest, because both the values and interests of liberal democrat states depend fundamentally on a rule-based international order.

The disagreement with neo-conservatism is not about the ends of of democracy and human rights. It is an argument that the question of internationalist and multilateral means is absolutely essential - again in part because self-interested unilateralism can do great damage to national interests.

I set out how a liberal internationalist agenda should be significantly different from the neo-cons without lapsing back into realism in my essay for Fabian Review in the summer of 2006, looking at how a "neo-prog" agenda would be different from a neo-con one.

It was called The World After Bush, and tried to ask what would need to happen after a sigh of relief swept around the world on inauguration day.

This week's speech may offer a chance to assess whether Barack Obama might qualify for the "neo-prog" label.

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