In a SPIEGEL interview, Charles Krauthammer, the leading voice of America's conservative intellectuals, discusses Barack Obama's Nobel Peace Prize, the president's failures and the state of the United Nations and the international community.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Krauthammer, did the Nobel Commitee in Oslo honor or doom the Obama presidency by awarding him the Peace Prize?
Charles Krauthammer: It is so comical. Absurd. Any prize that goes to Kellogg and Briand, Le Duc Tho and Arafat, and Rigoberta Menchú, and ends up with Obama, tells you all you need to know. For Obama it's not very good because it reaffirms the stereotypes about him as the empty celebrity.
SPIEGEL: Why does it?
Krauthammer: He is a man of perpetual promise. There used to be a cruel joke that said Brazil is the country of the future, and always will be; Obama is the Brazil of today's politicians. He has obviously achieved nothing. And in the American context, to be the hero of five Norwegian leftists, is not exactly politically positive.
SPIEGEL: It hardly makes sense to blame him for losing the Olympic bid in one week, and then for winning the Nobel Prize the next.
Krauthammer: He should have simply said: "This is very nice, I appreciate the gesture, but I haven't achieved what I want to achieve." But he is not the kind of man that does that.
SPIEGEL: Should he have turned down the prize?
Krauthammer: He would never turn that down. The presidency is all about him. Just think about the speech he gave in Berlin. There is something so preposterous about a presidential candidate speaking in Berlin. And it was replete with all these universalist clichés, which is basically what he's been giving us for nine months.
SPIEGEL: Why do Europeans react so positively to him?
Krauthammer: Because Europe, for very understandable reasons, has been chaffing for 60 years under the protection, but also the subtle or not so subtle domination of America. Europeans like to see the big guy cut down to size, it's a natural reaction. You know, Europe ran the world for 400 or 500 years until the civilizational suicide of the two World Wars. And then America emerged as the world hegemon, with no competition and unchallenged. The irony is America is the only hegemonic power that never sought hegemony, unlike, for example, Napoleonic France. Americans are not intrinsically imperial, but we ended up dominant by default: Europe disappeared after the Second World War, the Soviet Union disappeared in 1991, so here we are. Of course Europeans like to see the hegemon diminished, and Obama is the perfect man to do that.
SPIEGEL: Maybe Europeans want to just see a different America, one they can admire again.
Krauthammer: Admire? Look at Obama's speech at the UN General Assembly: "No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation." Take the first half of that sentence: No nation can dominate another. There is no eight year old who would say that -- it's so absurd. And the second half? That is adolescent utopianism. Obama talks in platitudes, but offers a vision to the world of America diminished or constrained, and willing to share leadership in a way that no other presidency and no other great power would. Could you imagine if the Russians were hegemonic, or the Chinese, or the Germans -- that they would speak like this?
SPIEGEL: Is America's power not already diminished?
Krauthammer: Relative to what?
SPIEGEL: To emerging powers.
Krauthammer: The Chinese are rising, the Indians have a very long way to go. But I'm old enough to remember the late 1980s, "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers" by Paul Kennedy and the prevailing view that America was in decline and Japan was the rising power. The fashion now is that the Chinese will overtake the United States. As with the great Japan panic, there are all kinds of reasons why that will not happen.
Look, eventually American hegemony will fade. In time, yes. But now? Economically we now have serious problems, creating huge amounts of debt that we cannot afford and that could bring down the dollar and even cause hyperinflation. But nothing is inevitable. If we make the right choices, if we keep our economic house in order, we can avert an economic collapse. We can choose to decline or to stay strong.
SPIEGEL: Do you really believe that Obama deliberately wants to weaken the US?
Krauthammer: The liberal vision of America is that it should be less arrogant, less unilateral, more internationalist. In Obama's view, America would subsume itself under a fuzzy internationalism in which the international community, which I think is a fiction, governs itself through the UN.
SPIEGEL: A nightmare?
Krauthammer: Worse than that: an absurdity. I can't even imagine serious people would believe it, but I think Obama does. There is a way America will decline -- if we choose first to wreck our economy and then to constrain our freedom of action through subordinating ourselves to international institutions which are 90 percent worthless and 10 percent harmful.
SPIEGEL: And there is not even 1 percent that is constructive?
Krauthammer: No. The UN is worse than disaster. The UN creates conflicts. Look at the disgraceful UN Human Rights Council: It transmits norms which are harmful, anti-liberty, and anti-Semitic among other things. The world would be better off in its absence.
SPIEGEL: And Obama is, in your eyes, …
Krauthammer: He's becoming ordinary. In the course of his presidency, Obama has gone from an almost magical charismatic figure to an ordinary politician. Ordinary. Average. His approval ratings are roughly equal to what the last five presidents' were at the same time in their first term. Other people have already said he's done and finished because his health care plans ran into trouble; but I say they're wrong. He's going to come back, he will pass something on health care, there's no question. He will have a blip, be somewhat rehabilitated politically, but he won't be able to pass anything on climate change. He will not be the great transformer he imagines himself to be. A president like others -- with successes and failures.