A Sub-Plot on the Sub-Continent

With the midterm elections out of the way, President Obama has travelled to India and Indonesia in his latest effort to show a new face of American leadership in parts of the world that have previously lacked for such attention. Much has been made of his public diplomacy and efforts to dance in particular, but there is far more at stake here than the street credibility of Barack Obama.

Cold, hard, power politics are at the heart of the trip, with the president looking to secure up to 20 individual agreements worth $10bn for American producers, including General Electric and Boeing. At stake here is the president’s domestic standing since such deals could secure up to 54,000 American jobs, vital if the U.S. economy is going to recover in time for the re-election campaign that in many respects is already underway, but which will kick off in earnest in a little over a year’s time in the snows of New Hampshire and Iowa.

The price of generating such business in India is presidential support for a proposed Indian seat on the UN Security Council. This was not quite an announcement of active support for such an eventuality, but will regardless aggravate Pakistan at a time when the U.S. is in desperate need of their support on the AfPak boarder. Similar pronouncements were made regarding Japan and Germany in the 1990s, to no avail. This latest bout of posturing to a host nation, however, is indicative of the degree to which the American president has been reduced to a travelling salesman, promoting U.S. business interests in an effort to improve his own domestic political standing.

In addition to visiting India, Obama has continued his outreach to Muslim nations in Indonesia, his home as a child. Obama’s efforts in the face of repeated ambivalence and perceived reduced American leverage in the world carry great risks, both internationally and domestically. On the world stage, few expect a rapprochement anytime soon as the outreached hand continues to be met with an iron fist. Domestically, efforts to engage with the world’s largest Muslim nations will likely inflame tensions, with a stubborn percentage clinging to the belief that their president is a Muslim and ineligible for office as a foreigner. Such fears were played out in the mid-term elections this month, which saw Obama’s Democrats lose control of the House of Representatives.

Obama’s ability to continue his outreach to foreign lands will be curtailed by this result. Although he can now highlight Republican intransigence, he will also face investigations and hearings into policy and personnel as he prepares to seek re-election. In similar circumstances, previous presidents have sought solace abroad. Obama’s salvation however, can only come from the American electorate. Irrespective of foreign popularity, he must seek to rebuild his credentials as a president for the American people if he stands any hope of becoming a global statesman in a potential second term.