The barest fact of Our Time is this: the United States of America is truly alone... very alone... in the World.
Now, this is not altogether, nor necessarily, a bad thing: as George Friedman, founder of STRATFOR (Strategic Forecasting, Inc.), so well points out in his recent book The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century, the United States is the Superpower precisely because it has what an old friend of mine (an ex-US Navy submariner) once told me was the term of art for just such thing- a "Blue-water Navy": that is, America's Navy is the only one that can effectively (and, for that matter, efficiently) patrol (and, in this sense, also control) the three "trade oceans"- those in the Temperate and Tropical zones: the Atlantic, the Indian and the Pacific... and this (since Global Trade still, even in this "post-Modern" early 21st Century, moves most cost-effectively by water than by any other means) is basically what counts most.
Yeah, sure... right now, pirates off the coast of East Africa are, indeed, a serious threat (though, in the broader scheme of things, only in the sense that mosquitoes are a serious threat to thoroughly enjoying a family picnic) but the fact remains that our Nation's effective Oversight of World Trade through its Military Presence is what makes the USofA the only Nation-State that can pretty much project its Power anywhere at any time (though it, nevertheless, still has to so project most wisely- which has not always been the case).
Put another way- here using the answer I once gave to a liberal friend of mine when, almost a quarter century ago now, she opined that "the United States shouldn't try and become the World's 'Policeman'": we're already the World's "Policeman" and have been since- oh, say: I dunno- like, 1945? The problem is that most of the rest of the World- including our own Friends (real and alleged) and Allies (well... at least some of the time)- often enough don't very much like or appreciate this.
But said Socii et Amici ("Allies and Friends" in Latin, which is one of the very terms the Romans themselves used to describe much of their own Realm- what we ourselves look back and call an "Empire" [even though, like our own Sphere(s) of Influence, the classic Roman Empire, even in its heyday, was usually far more a "constellation" than imperium: meanwhile, an American so-called "Empire" has ever been constellation of such Allies and Friends]) can do nothing to change the reality that, at least at this juncture in Human History, the United States of America is what it is... no less, but no more.
Yet, at the same time, we can do nothing about the fact that, as far as our own Foreign Policy is concerned-- well-- "God helps those who help themselves" and- if, indeed, "In God We Trust", as the motto on our coinage and currency proclaims- we Americans are, thereby, pretty much left to our own devices- at least as of this typing- no less than we were during the late Administrations of George W. Bush. And this- more than anything else- is the rather hard lesson President Obama brought home with him from his recent trip to Europe, Turkey and his "meet 'n' greet" with our troops in Iraq.
Yes, 'tis true the cheering crowds in many a European public square (whether actual crowds to whom Obama spoke or even within the virtual "public square" of cyberspace blogging) were overly enthusiastic... but there is ever a certain "disconnect" between the European rank and file and their own elected politicians and this is, in the main, something of a side effect of Parliamentary Democracy- as opposed to the Presidential system of governance we Americans enjoy (though please note I here use the term "enjoy" rather loosely-- for I am more than well aware that Income Tax Due Day is in the middle of this coming week [;-)]).
In the American system, the political executive- the President and those who report to him (the Executive Branch)- is not at all responsible to the Congress of the United States: indeed, it can well be argued that the President alone is directly responsible to the American People as a whole for (even with the device of a so-called "Electoral College" that actually does the electing) he alone has been elected as a result of the collective votes cast by the entirety of the country's electorate (again, however indirectly that result has been applied). On the other hand, the members of both houses of Congress do not, in the end, speak for the Nation- rather, they speak for the States of the American Union (in the case of U.S. Senators) or, in most cases, a smaller portion of a State (as in the case of Representatives in the U.S. House); yes, there are times an individual Senator or Congressman might act as if- or even believe- he/she is speaking for the Nation but, constitutionally, this is not ever really the case.
The only entity larger than a Congressional District or a State a Congressman or a Senator might, if only at times, be really speaking for (and how much this might be true for an individual legislator depends on that legislator's closeness to- or distance from [whether voluntary or not]- his/her Party's leadership in the respective chamber) is his/her Party (put another way: a Congressman or Senator claiming to reflect the National Will is, in reality, but opining his/her variant on his/her Party's take on said National Will).
But the President- if he so wishes (presumably after having made all due calculation that this is also to his own political advantage)- can differ significantly from the Congressional leadership of even his own Party and this also holds true when his own Party (as is currently the case) controls both houses of Congress (though he can rarely, if ever, simply ignore it completely, especially in the instant situation) and, if he- rather than Congress- has the support (or, at least, more of the support) of at least a healthy plurality- if not an outright majority- of the American People, the President can yet come up smelling like the proverbial "rose" (if only in the basest political sense of that metaphor).
In a Parliamentary Democracy, however, the situation is- at least institutionally- rather different:
Therein, the political executive- whether Prime Minister, Premier or Chancellor- is directly responsible to Parliament or its equivalent (and, in those Parliamentary Democracies with bicameral legislatures, this executive responsibility is, functionally, more due the lower house- that which, like the lower house of the American Congress, is the truest depository of the proverbial "passions of the People", at least as such "passions" might have been expressed through the returns of the most recent General Election). So long as said political executive has the confidence of Parliament, there is no requirement for the next General Election until the full constitutional term of said Parliament (or lower house of same, depending) has completely run its course.
In practice, yes, General Elections are- more often than not- called "early": that is, well before the end of a Parliament's term (by the political executive itself, mind you! [unless, of course, the new election happens to be the result of a vote of "no confidence" in the political executive- the "Government"- by Parliament itself]). At the same time, however, a Government in a Parliamentary Democracy can- no less than the Energizer bunny- keep going and going and going, so long as the constitutional mandate for a new General Election is not at all imminent; as long as the Prime Minister or equivalent has the confidence of most in his/her own Party- or, where necessary, coalition of Parties- which, far more often than not, hold the majority of the seats in a given chamber as a result of the previous General Election (making a vote of No Confidence far less likely to begin with), the Government can just keep on doing whatever it's been doing all along- and do so regardless of the various and sundry shifts, over time, in fickle Public Opinion.
It has long been argued that Parliamentary Democracy responds far more quickly than Presidential Democracy to a major change in Public Opinion. True enough, perhaps (for instance, simply see "American Presidential Election, 2008": just how long before this past 4 November was overall discontent with President George W. Bush clearly evident?)- but the key phrase here is "major change": when, however, it comes to what might best be termed "ordinary change" in that same Public Opinion (far more the usual scenario), it is- in the main- a whole other story!
For, until that next General Election- and so long as the political executive and his Government, indeed, continues to hold the confidence of the Party or Coalition controlling the legislative assembly (or- again- in a bicameral Parliament, the lower chamber of same)- Public Opinion is actually of little direct or immediate effect; meanwhile, a President of the United States- truly, as I have often pointed out on this website, the Nation's "Guarantor and Protector" [the only Federal officer- elective or appointive- required, by Oath of Office, to "preserve and protect" the American Constitution]- can go "out on the hustings" in an attempt to rally the Nation directly (though such an attempt has no guarantee of success, of course [just see "Wilson, Woodrow and the League of Nations"]- no guarantees "out there" for the Guarantor! [;-)]).
Now, this is not to at all suggest that a Prime Minister or equivalent will not ever appeal to the masses "out there" in order to, say, attempt to rein in recalcitrant back-benchers of his/her own Party or Coalition but the political executive in a Parliamentary system of governance does not truly- nor fully- enjoy that "bully Pulpit", the famous phrase with which one-time holder of the Office Theodore Roosevelt described the Presidency of the United States. Simply put: it is different in America.
Thus, no matter how enthusiastic the "rock star-like" reception for President Obama in European capitals, the fact remains that- at least for the most part- the European politicians were not at all nearly so enthusiastic (indeed, they proved to have been far more enthusiastic for the possibility of an Obama Presidency during the then-Democratic nominee's visit to that continent last Summer than they have since shown as regards the reality of an actual Obama Administration): if there is one thing that was driven home more than any other during the President's recent trip, it was certainly that!
Now, I purposely used the phrase "a hard lesson" in the subhead to this very piece: please know I did so with tongue (at least partially) in cheek.
There is this rather bad habit within the Wacky, Wonderful World of American Political Punditry to treat every American President going off on his first major Foreign Policy jaunt as if he is some overly eager schoolboy- revved up to so formally join "big boy" status through first going to school to more formally learn his ABCs in a classroom instead of, as hitherto, solely at Mama's knee- only to, later if not sooner, become chastened by the harsh reality that the first days and weeks of Kindergarten are but the merest beginning of a 13-year-long commitment to formal childhood education, one perhaps supplemented by college/university and, maybe, even post-graduate formal study beyond even that.
In other words, we all tend to write about "lessons learned" by a President in his first several months in that High Office as if he had never ever been alerted to the various possibilities and potential pitfalls of same aforehand.
In reality, all modern Presidents of the United States- regardless of Party and/or ideology- are well briefed ahead of time by people associated with the National Security Council (and, in particular, a President's own National Security Advisor and his/her staff), as well as those ensconced within the more formal diplomatic apparatus associated with the State Department and its Embassies and Consulates abroad (from the Secretary of State on down) as well as those at, or associated with, the Pentagon: this is, of course, not at all to say that any given set of such advisors and briefers are necessarily always- or even often- correct in their respective (and, at times, contradictory) views of the Global Situation at the very time a President is being so briefed-- but the fact remains that a President does not- in any wise- travel overseas "cold".
In other words, President Obama knew full well- even before Air Force One lifted off the runway and headed out over the Atlantic to begin with- that, when he and the others attending the G-20 meeting or the NATO summit, etc. spoke publicly about, say, "cooperation" as regards, say, the Economic Meltdown or the War on Terrorism, he had already discerned from whom the very word "cooperation" would only be so stated as if coming through well-gritted teeth.
Put another way: the "hard lesson" I myself have noted above was already well ingrained well before the aforementioned conferences had even taken place. For, no less than Lyndon Baines Johnson himself, Barack Hussein Obama didn't get where he is today without well having learned at least the barest essence of that which ol' LBJ said he learned from his own father, a Texas state legislator- to wit:
If you can't walk into a room and tell right away who’s for you and who’s against you, you have no business in Politics.
And it is none the less- at least in kind, where not degree- when it comes to Foreign Policy!