Monday, August 29, 2011

Leading from behind the scenes

David Remnick has a great piece on Obama, Libya and leadership.  He begins with the introduction of the notion of "leading from behind, " which first appeared in a New Yorker article by Ryan Lizza
Lizza wrote. “One of his advisers described the President’s actions in Libya as ‘leading from behind.’ ” He concluded:

That’s not a slogan designed for signs at the 2012 Democratic Convention, but it does accurately describe the balance that Obama now seems to be finding. It’s a different definition of leadership than America is known for, and it comes from two unspoken beliefs: that the relative power of the U.S. is declining, as rivals like China rise, and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world. Pursuing our interests and spreading our ideals thus requires stealth and modesty as well as military strength.

Leading from behind. You could almost hear the speed-dials revving at the headquarters of the Republican National Committee. The phrase ricocheted from one Murdoch-owned editorial page and television studio to the next; Obama was daily pilloried as a timorous pretender who, out of a misbegotten sense of liberal guilt, unearned self-regard, and downright unpatriotic acceptance of fading national glory, had handed over the steering wheel of global leadership to the Élysée Palace. We were, as Mitt Romney put it, “following the French into Libya.” The President was “dithering,” Sarah Palin declared. John McCain wanted boots on the ground. Michele Bachmann, the G.O.P.’s arch-isolationist, said, “I would not have gone in,” while Newt Gingrich declared, “This is about as badly run as any foreign operation we’ve seen in our lifetime.” John Bolton, George W. Bush’s U.N. Ambassador, was sure that Obama had “set himself up for massive strategic disaster.” Rick Perry, for his part, shot an elephant in his pajamas.

Six months later, as Libyans rejoice at the prospect of a world without an unhinged despot, many of Obama’s critics still view a President who rid the world of Osama bin Laden (something that George Bush failed to do) and helped bring down Muammar Qaddafi (something that Ronald Reagan failed to do) as supinely selling out American power. Yet the Administration’s policies—a more apt description, admittedly, would have been “leading from behind the scenes”—were tailored to limiting circumstances. 
When I saw this, light bulbs began to illuminate in my head.  "Leading from behind the scenes" is essentially "consensual hegemony," a concept introduced by the Italian socialist writer and philosopher Antonio Gramsci.

Gramsci’s conception of hegemony posits that leadership can be exercised without coercion or force, but rather through co-option or cooperation. According to Sean Burges, consensual hegemony entails: "an oblique application of pressure or the advance creation of conditions that would make a future policy appear a self-interested move by other countries."  Burges applied the concept to Brazil and its use of constructing a South American region distinct from Latin America, with Brazil at the heart.  Meanwhile, Brazil did this more on a global scale with its work in the India-Brazil-South Africa Dialogue Forum (IBSA) (the Axis of Austral).

Anyway, back to the task at hand.  Obama's "leading from behind the scenes" is a great example of applying consensual hegemony as a form of soft power to obtain the desired policy outcome.  But as Remnick points out, results for such policies run afoul when dealing with an American opposition that cares nothing for nuance:
With what results? There are no sure outcomes in foreign policy, only a calculation of consequences, guided by an appraisal of national interests and values. The trouble with so much of the conservative critique of Obama’s foreign policy is that it cares less about outcomes than about the assertion of America’s power and the affirmation of its glory. In the case of Libya, Obama led from a place of no glory, and, in the eyes of his critics, no results could ever vindicate such a strategy. Yet a calculated modesty can augment a nation’s true influence. Obama would not be the first statesman to realize that it can be easier to win if you don’t need to trumpet your victory.

No comments: