By Jacob L. Shapiro
This is an extraordinary photograph.
A century from now, when people visit Barack Obama’s presidential library, this should be one of the very first things they see because of how much it reveals about his presidency and the United States’ current role in the world. Obama arrived in Vietnam on May 22 to continue building on the growing strategic partnership between Hanoi and Washington, but he had to counter the historical overtones of an American president traveling to Vietnam to ask something of it.
So he had a picture taken – not at an elaborate state dinner or public ceremony, but in a small restaurant with everyday Vietnamese citizens. Obama took this picture because he wanted to show the world that the U.S. isn’t an empire, that the U.S. president isn’t an emperor and that he came to Vietnam simply as a leader of a fellow nation with a shared strategic interest.
Empire is a loaded word. The United States is not an empire by the strictest definition. The president is not an emperor. With a few small exceptions, the U.S. does not maintain political and economic control over a vast array of colonies that have sworn loyalty to the Constitution. Vassal states do not have to pay tribute to the U.S. government, and though the U.S. maintains substantial military forces throughout the world in peacetime, it does not do so against the will of the countries where those troops are stationed. When the Philippines told the U.S. to leave by the end of 1992, the U.S. left. When the Philippines was ready for U.S. forces to return on a limited basis this year, they returned.
Nevertheless, the United States is an empire. It is an empire for one key reason: the scale of its power is imperial. A point that we return to often at Geopolitical Futures is that the United States is the first and only country in the history of the world to dominate both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Even the British, at the height of their naval empire and at a time when Japan and China were no match for their ships, had serious competition in the Pacific Ocean from Germany and France. The U.S. possesses a level of military equipment and technology unmatched by any other state, the scale of its power over the entire globe is unprecedented, and two massive oceans protect its heartland.
This is not a role that the United States has ever felt comfortable playing. The U.S. was born of a revolution against a distant monarchy. Two of its most important founding fathers, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, cautioned that the young republic should avoid intervening in the affairs of the world as much as possible. The U.S. had to be dragged into both World War I and World War II because Americans were not interested in fighting European wars. Outside of its own backyard, for most of its history the U.S. was uninterested in dominating the world. Calvin Coolidge was president of the U.S. from 1923 to 1929. He visited only one foreign country in his entire presidency – Cuba. The idea of an American president today making one trip abroad during a two-term presidency is unfathomable.
Many people I know who have seen this photograph have reacted with words that have become overused in the American vocabulary. Obama looks “cool,” sitting there across from a culinary celebrity, his collar unbuttoned and his sleeves rolled up. It’s “awesome” that the president would take time out of an official and emotionally charged state visit to sit down and get a taste of everyday life in Vietnam. Which means on some level that the photograph worked. It made the leader of an empire seem as though he wasn’t imperial.
However, the first thing I thought about when I looked at this picture was how much time and how many Secret Service officers it took to clear the restaurant, the block that the restaurant is on and an unknown mile radius around the place so that the president of the United States could sit there and eat noodles. Was his table chosen because it was the best vantage point for a photograph, or simply because it was the best location in the room from which the Secret Service could protect him? Eating on the street or sidewalk like most in Hanoi wasn’t an option – the place needed at least a certain level of security. How long did it take the locals to adjust to the appearance of the leader of the world’s most powerful nation – a nation that a half-century ago engaged in a war that ended in over 4 million civilian casualties and 1.25 million Vietnamese soldiers dead – and then go back to eating their noodles and pretending like nothing was any different?
Political leaders are individuals, and yet they are also reflections of their nation’s society. Obama is a Democrat who was elected by a coalition of relatively wealthy white liberals concentrated in major U.S. cities and minority voters. Obama has a carefully crafted image, as all politicians do, but in this case his image says something about the majority of U.S. voters who elected him. On the one hand, this is exactly the way wealthy American liberals enjoy traveling. Travel to a faraway exotic place and attempt to find not any old tourist trap but a place the locals like to eat. The advent of the smartphone means you don’t even have to know a local to find the place, just search Google. On the other hand, Obama exudes cosmopolitanism, a no less crucial part of the appeal that brought him into office twice. He’s sitting on a cheap blue plastic stool, in a country where the U.S. fought perhaps its most controversial war, blending in as if he were just a regular guy, trying to get some noodles after a long day’s work.
This is not a critique of Obama, nor is it meant to instruct future American presidents not to go to the trouble of frequenting a local hotspot for a beer when they travel abroad. It is rather meant to point out that the way in which this photograph communicates the identity crisis the U.S. has experienced since the fall of the Soviet Union left it alone as the world’s undisputed superpower. Despite its occasional histrionics, the U.S. knows that its military and economic power is unparalleled in the world. Even those that subscribe to the notion that China is a would-be challenger to the U.S. (which we don’t) recognize that it would take China decades to develop the kind of power necessary to compete on the same level. When horrible things happen in the world, many Americans feel that the U.S. has some level of responsibility to try and use its immense power to fashion the world more in its own image.
But despite this awareness of its power, the U.S. also does not want to be treated like an empire, and is uncomfortable with the amount of power it wields. The U.S. wants to be powerful and knows that it is, and yet wants to be treated as if it is an ordinary country, just as Obama wanted to show himself sitting down and having a cheap bowl of noodles without being criticized or gawked at.
The founding mythology of the U.S. insists that it is a country just like any other, born of a struggle against oppression and created with the lofty goal that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness could be the defining attributes of its state. The U.S. believes those principles are universal and that it uses its power to preserve them, not just at home but abroad. The U.S. may support states that don’t share its principles, but says it’s for the greater good and for a nobler end, and if only people would just understand that and share its principles everything would be ok.
More than anything, the U.S. wants to be liked, and it doesn’t understand why sometimes it isn’t. As is always the case, some people will, and some people won’t. The U.S. can sit on whatever stool it wants because ultimately, whether it is liked or not, it is feared – even if it doesn’t want to be. And its president – who has presided over two wars he hoped to end, who has made liberal use of drone strikes to attack American enemies, who is pressing Turkey incessantly in order to fight the Islamic State and to build a line of defense against Russia – knows that better than anyone.