When the US President became Nobel Peace Laureate last December it created dismay amongst even some of his most ardent supporters--the award was surely an act of faith rather than recognition of achievement. But such a decision was merely the logical extension of European (particularly Nordic/ Scandinavian) policy for at least the last two decades: if you seem to care and say the right things, it doesn't matter if you don't actually achieve anything worthwhile. In fact, you can be counterproductive again and again, as long as you maintain the correct 'status markers of opinions', as cultural anthropologists call the ideas society accepts as 'right-thinking'.
Current right-thinking dictates that there are important issues one must sincerely care about, such as climate change, African poverty and sickness and many more. Fair enough so far, but right-thinking is a bundled product: you have to accept all the features whether you want to or not, and it follows inexorably that there is a single cause of and single solution to each problem. There is consensus, therefore there is no need for debate. This is theoretically illogical and the practical result is often disastrous.
One effect of consensus thinking is that it persuades adherents that they can do anything for a good cause. I saw this hypocrisy first hand in February 1998 when I was holidaying in Trinidad and Tobago and found myself on a beach surrounded by UN-funded climate scientists who were debating how damaging air travel would be for the environment. Academics in previously unglamorous disciplines were suddenly catapulted out of their obscure concrete bunkers and no doubt felt they deserved their place in the sun. But all too soon, their precious theories began to look ragged as the data refused to support them and adherents started--some would argue--lying in a good cause.
The wheel has fallen off that bandwagon, and sceptics of the anthropogenic global warming (AGW) theory are being invited to share their opinions by those who would not have shared a platform with them before. Not all AGW adherents were so spiteful as to call sceptics 'deniers' or 'paid liars' but neither did they defend debate or try to stop vilification of those who refused to join the consensus.
Political dissent within Europe is treated just as harshly; note the Lisbon Treaty, which extends unelected and increasingly unaccountable Eurocrats' powers in Brussels, yet it is what the elite want and so has now been ratified by every EU member. The Irish, having once rejected Lisbon, were encouraged to try again, and delivered the 'right' answer.
It is probably too early to judge President Obama's performance on any front, although Americans are letting him know their concerns about healthcare in particular by electing a Republican Senator to Ted Kennedy's former seat. Obama's speech-making is still excellent and for many that appears to be all that counts. In Europe he is loved from Latvia to London, having made all the right noises to that audience. But his honeymoon period has run out at home, and will do overseas, and soon, notably because of the sheer ignorance of so many Europeans about certain aspects of American foreign policy, particularly that the Bush administration did not engage in diplomacy. Of course it did; it just arrived at conclusions at odds with the European consensus.
Sometimes, doing the right thing does mean wading in single-handedly and then taking the consequences of your actions. Gaining consensus can mean fatal delay; but once consensus is reached, there is no mechanism to check the actions which flow from it.
Europeans still love President Obama, but he is an American, and the American people expect their leader to put US interests first, which meant more troops for Afghanistan and more than harsh words for Iran's and North Korea's leaders. And there is still no US agreement to lower carbon emissions. The Nobel Committee had probably hoped that by bribing President Obama with the award that he would remain one of theirs--he still is rhetorically, but he will act as an American President. Consensus will be desired, but not achieving it will not stop unilateral action.
Roger Bate is the Legatum Fellow in Global Prosperity at AEI.