Obama at Oslo - Figure 8s on Thin Ice

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Michael Brenner Senior Fellow, the Center for Transatlantic Relations; Professor of International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh

Trying to discern in Obama's address at Oslo the contours of a coherent foreign policy is likely to prove futile. For the elucidation of a strategic design was not the purpose. The aim was political -- in two senses. The first, primary consideration was to create favorable impressions among the American public -- especially the political class -- of Obama's stewardship and the country's exalted standing in the world. The secondary objective, I believe, was to shape perceptions of the United States as a sober, responsible and 'humane' leader of the global community. Satisfying both audiences required that he at once justify the ready resort to military force, the outstanding feature of America's international actions in recent years, and to stake a claim to the moral high ground. The coincidence of the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony with the escalation of the war in Afghan/Pakistan was the inescapable occasion to accomplish these purposes.

Toward that end, Obama took a dual approach. The first element was casting the discourse at a high level of abstraction: 'just war' theory, community of nations, the human condition, the age old struggle to reconcile right and might, means and ends. The other element was stylistic. Rather than seek to formulate an elaborate intellectual argument whose parts were integrated into a logically rigorous analysis, Obama chose to present a sort of collage or, perhaps more accurately, a modernistic painting a la Kandinsky. That involved displaying on the canvas (the minds of his audience) arresting splashes in various shapes and colors along with stray lines, vaguely connected to each other, that commented upon the bright passages. All the components were chosen with care to evoke certain impressions and images. References to the pantheon of the virtuous -- Gandhi, Martin Luther King; conjuring evil in vivid terms -- 9/11, al-Qaida, the spectre of nuclear war; pious allusion to the Divine (spark) and our eternal longing to comport with our better angels; presenting America in its Sunday best -- the indispensable nation with the means and will to defend everyone's enlightened interests, to 'remain the standard bearer in the conduct of war', to keep the world order from 'buckling.' In short, the one best hope of mankind. These unoriginal materials were speckled throughout the speech, suitably attired for grand occasions. They give tone and were meant to be felt as tokens of earnestness while creating a mood of uplift.

The overall composition, as well as its individual ingredients, is designed to play on feeling rather than to engage thought. Certainly not critical cognition. These are not dots, data points, encouraging you to connect them by your own applied intellect. They are an invitation to see reality in the speaker's terms without the audience's feeling the artist's guiding hand. This is the way non-representational art works, when there is intelligent intent behind its creation. The splotches of paint or sound or word symbol are meant to generate affect. They entice rather than direct. The tangible recognizable bits (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Darfur) are interspersed throughout not for the purpose of instruction. Rather, it is intended that your thoughts/feelings about the speaker's take on them should be made favorable by the composition of evocative symbols that surrounds it. In plain English, you agree that Obama is right about all those problematic places and issues because he and they have acquired a halo.

Skillful oratory of this nature is meant to leave a lasting impression. An impression of the person and his imagery whose afterglow will cast in a becoming light all else that will emanate from him. It burnishes his persona. Oslo is but a highlight in a campaign -- a campaign to make politically real, at home and abroad, what is now a virtual reality. The one hard element is the preoccupation with terrorism. Fear and dread are the verities. What was so prominent in the Nobel speech is also manifest in American policy and diplomacy. A grammatically correct war against terror is the lodestone. India we tell to make peace in Kashmir so as to free Pakistani military resources for an all-out war on the Northwest frontier. Europeans we tell to send more troops. Russia we tell to give us transit rights to reinforce Afghanistan (in addition to sanctioning Iran). The African Union we tell to support the suppression of Islamic radicals in Mali, Somalia, Chad. The Latin Americans we warn not to let drug money find its way into the terrorism arena. All else is overshadowed. Those hundred al-Qaida in the Hindu Kush can undo all the arduous work of the past sixty years. For better or worse, that is the one anchor in Obama's worldview -- Albert Schweitzer, Nelson Mandela, and Gandhi notwithstanding.

I offer these remarks as a cautionary tale against being over eager to find understanding of the taproots for Obama's foreign policy in his Oslo speech. What he decided to do in AfPak, in Palestine, in Somalia, on extraordinary rendition and open-ended detention did not arise from some philosophy. This will be no different when he makes his fateful decision about Iran. Let's look instead at the interplay of pressures -- whether originating out there or, equally important, among some of his strong willed advisers -- especially those now in the ascendancy in the Pentagon. That interplay will take place within a presidential mental space that is responsive and adaptive. It lacks a fine grained cognitive map that has fixed markers. Obama's conviction is a constant; its content is in perpetual flux.