Naomi Klein: Barack Obama's bad influence

Of all the explanations for Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize, the one that rang truest came from French president Nicolas Sarkozy. “It sets the seal on America’s return to the heart of all the world’s peoples.” In other words, this was Europe’s way of saying to America, “We love you again”—sort of like those weird “renewal of vows” ceremonies that couples have after surviving a rough patch.

Now that Europe and the United States are officially reunited, it seems worth asking: is this necessarily a good thing? The Nobel Committee, which awarded the prize specifically for Obama’s embrace of “multilateral diplomacy”, is evidently convinced that U.S. engagement on the world stage is a triumph for peace and justice. I’m not so sure.

After nine months in office, Obama has a clear track record as a global player. Again and again, U.S. negotiators have chosen not to strengthen international laws and protocols but rather to weaken them, often leading other rich countries in a race to the bottom.

Let’s start where the stakes are highest: climate change. During the Bush years, European politicians distinguished themselves from the United States by expressing their unshakable commitment to the Kyoto Protocol. So while the United States increased its carbon emissions by 20 percent from 1990 levels, the European Union countries reduced theirs by two percent. Not stellar, but clearly a case where the EU’s breakup with the United States carried tangible benefits for the planet.

Flash forward to the high-stakes climate negotiations that just wrapped up in Bangkok. The talks were supposed to lead to a deal in Copenhagen this December that significantly strengthens the Kyoto Protocol. Instead, the United States, the EU and the rest of the developed countries formed a unified bloc calling for Kyoto to be scrapped and replaced.

Where Kyoto set clear and binding targets for emission reductions, the U.S. plan would have each country decide how much to cut, then submit its plans to international monitoring (with nothing but wishful thinking to ensure that this all keeps the planet’s temperature below catastrophic levels). And where Kyoto put the burden of responsibility squarely on the rich countries that created the climate crisis, the new plan treats all countries the same.

These kinds of weak proposals were not altogether surprising coming from the United States. What was shocking was the sudden unity of the rich world around this plan—including many countries that had previously sung the praises of Kyoto.

And there were more betrayals: the EU, which had indicated it would spend $19 billion to $35 billion a year to help developing countries adapt to climate change, came to Bangkok with a much lower offer, one more in line with the U.S. pledge of”¦ nothing. Oxfam’s Antonio Hill summed up the negotiations like this: “When the starting gun fired, it became a race to the bottom, with rich countries weakening existing commitments under the international framework.”

This isn’t the first time a much-celebrated return to the negotiating table has resulted in overturned tables, with hard-won international laws and conventions scattered on the floor. The United States played a similar role at the UN conference on racism in Geneva in April. After extracting all sorts of deletions from the negotiating text—no references to Israel or the Palestinians, nothing on slavery reparations, etc.—the Obama administration decided to boycott it anyway, pointing to the fact that the new text “reaffirms” the document adopted in 2001 in Durban, South Africa.

It was a flimsy excuse, but there was some kind of logic to it, since the United States had never signed the original 2001 document. What made no sense was the wave of copycat withdrawals from around the rich world. Within 48 hours of the U.S. announcement, Italy, Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Poland had pulled out.

Unlike the United States, these governments had all signed the 2001 declaration, so they had no reason to object to a document that reaffirmed it. It didn’t matter. As with the climate change negotiations, lining up behind Obama, with his impeccable reputation, was an easy way to avoid burdensome international obligations and look progressive at the same time—a service the United States was never able to provide during the Bush years.

The United States has had a similarly corrupting influence as a new member of the UN Human Rights Council. Its first big test was Judge Richard Goldstone’s courageous report on Israel’s Gaza onslaught, which found that war crimes had been committed by both the Israeli army and Hamas. Rather than prove its commitment to international law, the United States used its clout to smear the report as “deeply flawed” and to strong-arm the Palestinian Authority into withdrawing a supportive resolution. (The PA, which faced a furious backlash at home for caving in to U.S. pressure, may introduce a new version.)

And then there are the G-20 summits, Obama’s highest-profile multilateral engagements. When one was held in London in April, it seemed for a moment that there might be some kind of coordinated international attempt to rein in transnational financial speculators and tax dodgers. Sarkozy even pledged to walk out of the summit if it failed to produce serious regulatory commitments. But the Obama administration had no interest in genuine multilateralism, advocating instead for countries to come up with their own plans (or not) and hope for the best—much like its reckless climate-change plan. Sarkozy, needless to say, did not walk anywhere but to the photo session to have his picture taken with Obama.

Of course, Obama has made some good moves on the world stage—not siding with the coup government in Honduras and supporting a UN women’s agency. But a clear pattern has emerged: in areas where other wealthy nations were teetering between principled action and negligence, U.S. interventions have tilted them toward negligence. If this is the new era of multilateralism, it is no prize.

Naomi Klein's column was first published in The Nation.



no-more luv

Oct 19, 2009 at 10:28pm

wondering when we will see NAFTA 2, North America Union, and their Amero...Obama could sell it


Oct 20, 2009 at 8:16am

If the Canadian clearly lost its marbles and did suggest a economic union with the US and a Amero it would have to hold an election. Clearly the majority of Canadians would not support any union with a war mongering administration waiting in the wings (AKA Republicans) to take over government and lead the US on another evangelical war on someone else. I'm not suggesting the Democrats are much different but they at least stop to smell the roses, occasionally. This gives other more sane governments time to consult with the Dopes south of the 49th and hopefully prevent another Iraq or Vietnam. (although Johnson was a Democrat and went headlong into Vietnam)


Oct 21, 2009 at 9:59pm

I think there are some out there that think we have to merge our nations and economies, in order to compete with the european union, and other merging entities. Is logical, as capital knows no borders, we have to streamline the process, so that we can maximize profits, job creation, and so forth.We live in a world of globalization, our dailey existence is founded on globalization, be it the food, clothes, technology...even your tooth brush.Seems if we want to be ahead in the this process, we should be developing an active plan and preparing for it.Have you even looked at Canada's population projections, we can not sustain our economy if our birth rate is below replacement, and we have an emerging crisis as the baby boomers are nearing retirement. Who's going to pay the taxes to support the elderly, education, healthcare, pension. We need to look at these issues seriously and I can not see any other alternative. Our Prime Minister and the American President, are both in agreeance that change has to happen.


Oct 30, 2009 at 2:59am

Perhaps President Obama is trying to encourage national leaders to lead.

Perhaps Obama does not think it is feasible for Americans to contribute to the developing world as it seems right now that the US has its own needs for development (seeing as they are among the largest consumers of fossil fuels, it makes sense to develop certain technologies esp. for the US to use?)

The Albertan tar sands are the largest, most unsustainable industrial development in human history. The development is killing land, animals, fish, people...and ultimately the planet. The majority of the oil here is exported to the US. Obama likely recognizes that the conscionable actions he makes for his own country have a ripple effect on other nations' decisions (e.g. his cap and trade strategy will likely affect decisions made regarding Canada's "economic" future esp with regards to the toxic oil sands). It is unfortunate that Harper and the Harper administration are not acting of their own volition to reorganize our economy away from the catastrophe of the tar sands; however, it seems likely that with conscionable decisions being made south, the north will choose to reorganize in a sustainable way (hopefully in line with the strategies outlined in the Pembina/Suzuki report which enlisted the help of M.K. Jaccard and Associates; these strategies will allow for Canada's emissions to be 25% below that of 1990 levels by 2020).

President Obama is simply playing his particular role in a conscionable way. While this role is not expressed in isolation from the international community, it must be brought to an appropriate scope that perhaps only an environment of balanced power can provide. I believe this is what Obama is trying to do.

Unfortunately, it seems the majority of our national leaders can not be trusted to make responsible decisions (not surprising from a bunch of people traveling via jets and audis to elaborate, self-congratulatory conferences); however, all that President Obama can do is set a good example.

The international stage is not set with the appropriate players needed for multilateralism to be realized. Too many seem mostly unaware of their own egoist drives.

It seems Obama is simply not comfortable with the amount of power the Europeans are so readily handing over to him at the moment. This seems to be revelational of a rather empathic and conscionable human being who happens to be leading the US at the moment. We should be grateful for this.

With regards to the issue with the human rights report regarding Palestine and Israel. It seems to me that just as Obama may be trying to encourage national leaders to make their own empathic decisions, perhaps he is doing the same within his own staff (i.e. perhaps he is trying to give leaders of various ministries freedom to make their own discerning decisions?)

I suspect that not everything that is expressed through the "Obama administration" is a representation of Obama himself. This seems highly probable of all leaders of any group really (esp. those groups led by wise people who know the world would best be ruled by a democracy of all that has yet to be realized; i think he genuinely wants to empower all people to be responsible leaders).

That is my hope.