Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Tale of Two Presidents

President George W. Bush declares 'Mission Accomplished' for combat operations in Iraq, 2003 (Associated Press)

During the course of a lifetime, six years can be a very short time. Yes, an individual will go through many changes during that period, but for many people, their sense of how they project themselves will change very little.

In global geopolitics however, six years can be an eternity. When responding to a journalist's question of what is most likely to blow a government off course, former British PM Harold Macmillan famously described 'events, dear boy, events', telling us that no matter how forcefully a government plans and enforces its ideals, there'll always be something that can force it to change direction.

As a government represents a nation on the world stage, so the Head of the Government thus epitomises that nation to the peoples and governments of all other nations. I have chosen two pictures for this post that I think represent such a radically different projection of a nation that they could almost be two entirely different countries; one picture of which has just been released and the other of which is now over six years old.

Above, is an image of the previous President of the United States (still currently the most powerful and influential country on the planet). In the picture, George W. Bush stares confidently and defiantly into the camera, backdropped with personnel and apparatus of a navy warship and a banner declaring 'Mission Accomplished'.

The picture tells the viewer that the US is strong, a military force not to be reckoned with, and a dominator over its foes (by extension, over all). In the picture, Bush is clearly addressing a domestic audience to reassure them of the nation's strength, yet the message is also aimed at a global audience to reinforce fear or deferential respect for the US.

President Barack Obama greeted by Emperor and Empress of Japan, 2009 (Reuters)

In the above picture of current US President Barack Obama, depicted at the beginning of a tour of Asia, we can see an utterly different projection of the US to the world. Obama has his eyes cast downwards rather than staring directly into the camera, and he is giving a deeply sombre bow to the Emperor, the traditional form of Japanese greeting given to anybody regardless of their standing in Japanese society. Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko and clearly delighted to receive their guest, given the expressions on their faces.

Such a picture would simply not have happened prior to Obama's presidency. During the Second World War, Japan and the US were prime adversaries. As a condition to their surrender during that war, Japan traded keeping their emperor in return for accepting American occupation. Prior to his radio announcement that Japan was surrendering to the US, Emperor Hirohito (Akihito's father) was considered to be a god by ordinary Japanese. Therefore, hearing his voice was a shock to a war-torn nation and amounted to a renunciation of his divinity. Bush's father even famously vomited in the lap of Japanese prime minister Kiichi Miyazawa at a diplomatic dinner in 1992.

The picture of Obama says that the US is respectful of local traditions or customs, and will act appropriately as an invited guest rather than insist on imposing its own way of doing things. It projects an image of the US that no longer takes a 'with us or against us' approach to international relations, but one of 'we're all in this together' and of equals on the world stage. Obama is stepping out of the confines of a purely domestic audience and addressing a global one (although whether he would be seen addressing Hamid Karzai in a similar manner remains to be seen).

Doubtless, there are many criticisms of the above reading of such an image that could be made, including that one single picture does not demonstrate a complete reversal of US foreign policy and that the US still has military bases across the planet that enforce its will. However, in our symbol-driven, always-on instant-media, modern world, I'd argue that this development is a massive and positive shift in the balance of global power relations.

If the United States can act with humility in the presence of former conquered adversaries, we are indeed living through most intriguing times and should at least have stepped back from the brink of the fears of the Bush era.


dave said...

Do you know how many Americans would think that the Obama/AKihito picture has it backwards? The unapologetic "but I'm an American" mentality is live and well and there are lots of people that despise the fact there is finally a president who adds humility to his dealings.

I find it interesting that Mr Bush has completely left public left behind to become a motivational speaker. Wasn't there any cause, any diplomatic passion in which he could excel, where he can become an elder stateman like some of his contemporaries (Clinton and, yes, even Carter).

The Bush picture just stirred up horrible memories. I remember chatting with a friend and telling each other in 2004: "if Bush get reelected we are moving out of the country." He ended up in Oz soon after but I touched down in Brighton four years later, just after casting my Obama vote. Bad timing but I guess I was true to my word!

Globalism said...

Thanks for your comment Dave, and please excuse the delayed response.

Doesn't surprise me that many Americans would think of it as the wrong way round. A couple of generations ago, you could have probably said the same thing for the British. I found it both surprising and rather pleasing to see that an American president would do such a thing, so couldn't help but pass comment.

It seemed pretty clear that Mr Bush had lost the stomach for the job long before his presidency ended, so it comes as no great surprise that he's not gone for a very public life following his time in the White House. Mind you, from the amount of time that he spent at home rather than on the job, it seemed like he didn't have much of a desire for the job most of the time.

Sorry for stirring up some bad memories there. I left Britain myself in the wake of the Iraq invasion, in dismay that this country had decided to revive imperialism again (does nobody read their history books?).

Funnily enough, I ended up right back in Brighton again. Seems like you made the same choice. A good move, and at least to got to get your historic vote in before you left!