Obama’s bow to the Saudi king may go down as one of those moments when Americans, or at least its foreign policy elite, realized the dead-end of the new realism of the post-Bush Democratic Party. Obama was probably just trying to be polite, and bowing is a common, albeit declining, practice in much of Eurasia. It is pretty uncommon to Americans, so it is easier to overread its significance. (Its so ingrained in Koreans, eg, that I have seen people bow instinctively after a phone conversation.)
But it is also true that it is a not a democratic or egalitarian practice. It is rooted in aristocracies like those of Prussia, France or Britain. It does signify some deference, and those lower on the food chain are supposed to bow more deeply than those higher up. (You learn the intricate gradations of bowing in Asian cultures.) And Obama’s bow was awfully deep (about 90 degrees). Honestly, he probably should not have done it.
It looks pretty awkward for the leader of the world’s most successful democracy to bow to one the world’s most reactionary monarchs. And this mini-flap is part of the larger debate stirred up by Obama’s outreach to some of the nastier regimes on the planet – including Iran and Russia. Not only the American nationalist right, but most Americans will eventually sour on it.
The reason is that realism is not the instinct of Americans when it comes to foreign policy. Most Americans like think that US foreign policy is doing good in the world, and we recite our history to ourselves in that manner. I see it in my undergrads all the time. They love movies like Black Hawk Down or Band of Brothers (Americans dying to do the right thing for others), or just go watch the History
Hitler Channel’s constant celebration of WWII, the ‘good war.’ In US foreign policy mythology, Eurasians are gutless, insipid dealmakers (EU countries trading with Iran and yakking at the UNSC) or progenitors of world-breaking fanaticisms (fascism, communism, Islamic fundamentalism) the US has to stop. The US is the city on the hill needlessly dragged in by Pearl Harbor or 9/11 to clean up Eurasia’s inability to leave in peace with itself. (For the long explanation of all this, try William Russell Mead’s Special Providence; the title alone tells you enough.)
Nor is realism really the position of the Democratic Party or Obama in their hearts. Obama is too much the social liberal – a supporter, eg, of gay and abortion rights – at home to really believe that the US should ‘respect’ dictatorships, theocracies and other closed states. Nor is realism the traditional foreign policy stance of the Democratic party. Since Americas ‘rise to globalism,’ the Democrats have traditionally argued that the US should promote human rights, expand aid, avoid alliances with nasties, limit the use and scope of force, etc. One of the great, and underappreciated moments, in the Democrats’ foreign policy history is C Vance’s principled resignation.
It is the GOP that is supposed to be the heartless defender of US interests, cold pragmatists, willing to expend ‘blood for oil,’ and all that. But actually, the GOP has never been so thoroughly realist either. Nixon and Bush 1 were the most ‘realist’ GOP presidents, but Reagan, the great GOP folk hero, was decidedly not. Reagan thought nuclear weapons, MAD, and the Cold War were a moral bane on mankind. He was as crusading as W on the promotion of US values abroad. And W of course argued that democracy promotion should be the whole point of US foreign policy.
My guess is that the newfound realism of the Democrats is simply a reaction to W, whom the left loathed. N Pelosi represents the city with the largest population of homosexuals in the country. She can’t honestly believe that Iran, whose president said there are no homosexuals in his country, is just another country we can deal with. At some point, she, Obama, HRC, and the others will turn from NK, Russia, Iran, etc. in disgust. They won’t be as obnoxious about it as W was, but I predict we will be nagging the Chinese about human rights again soon, re-containing Iran, squabbling with Russia and NK, etc. This trend will only accelerate as it becomes clear that pragmatic engagement doesn’t work much anyway: http://www.reuters.com/article/topNews/idUSTRE53B0Y020090412 and http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2009/04/116_43165.html.