Now: Muscular Communitarianism

Obama's soft communitarianism has yielded little. Iran continues to thumb its nose at his solicitations; the GOP is mocking it; and Wall Street is paying out bonuses using taxpayer dollars.
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The time for muscular communitarianism has come. In his second year, President Obama best reveal that his communitarianism is not powerless, but indeed has muscles of its own, although these have so far been rarely exercised.

The president has gone the extra mile to show that he is willing to talk, consult, and collaborate with allies and foes alike -- foreign and domestic. Nor has this form of kumbaya communitarianism been without results. Russia and China are supporting sanctions against Iran. The fever of anti-Americanism overseas has subsided some.

But, all said and done, Obama's soft communitarianism has yielded relatively little. Iran continues to thumb its nose at his solicitations; the GOP is mocking it; and the business elites are paying out their bonuses using taxpayer dollars, as if Obama never railed against them. Obama can maintain his positive posture, continue to refuse to hector nations whose regimes are different from ours, and even keep extending an olive branch to the business elites. But he would be much more effective if he would show that communities whose norms and leaders are ignored can twist the arms of, even give a kick in the pants to, those who refuse to collaborate.

A good place to start is with AIG. It has openly thumbed its nose at Obama by paying bonuses to executives using bailout money and by lobbying against pay curbs on top executives. Indeed, its CEO went as far as to announce that the US government was no match for him, as his anatomy had a bigger part than that of Washington. At the same time, AIG is still teetering and is dependent on scores of billons of dollars of federal help. This help should not be granted unless AIG mends its ways, posthaste. If it fails at this point, given the scope of the recovery abroad and in the US, there is little reason to believe the rest of the system will spin out of control. However, AIG's demise would send a message to one and all that the Obama administration's good will is not boundless..

On the international level, Iran is an obvious candidate for the lesson that communitarians are not chumps. However, before the US can proceed, it may well need more Russian collaboration. The Russians quite openly consider Obama a soft touch. Whatever concessions the US has made to "reset" the tone, the Russian leaders have pocketed and rushed to demand more. The place to show Russia that the US is not a patsy is in the negotiations over the extension of the START treaty, which the Russians are much keener to conclude than we ought to be. Hence, if they do not help much more in ensuring that Iran will not develop nukes, we should not rush to reduce our nuclear forces to the levels they prefer.

There are surely other ways to show some muscle than those I just suggested, and without leaving a horse's head in the beds of Senators Lieberman and Nelson. However, Obama better back up his good cheer with some powerful acts, or he will soon have little leverage left from his blessed communitarianism.

Amitai Etzioni is a professor of international relations and The George Washington University and the author of Security First (Yale 2007). He can be contacted at

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