For several years, my family and I used to summer in the mountain hamlet of the small Greek island of Alonissos, where we had rented a house near the single village restaurant, run by a plump, bustling woman who went by the nickname of Kyratsoula. We and a couple of friends were generally her only customers until the brief tourist season arrived, when all nine outdoor tables would be occupied by a gaggle of passers-through. One memorable evening at the height of the season, a flustered Kyratsoula knocked on our door, explained she was behind schedule, and asked to borrow a potato peeler which she could use to prepare the supper fries rather than the standard, dull, slow-working knife. As we were about to leave for the restaurant ourselves, we brought the coveted implement with us, took our usual table, and ordered several plates of fries to accompany the meal, expecting to be served quickly since it was still early and we were the only ones there.
But within the next ten or fifteen minutes, the terrace had filled up, and one table after another was gradually festooned with heaping plates of French fries. An hour elapsed and still our meal had not appeared. More time passed, and both our kids were by now asleep on the banquette. We were in fact the last table to be served. Since we were long residents on the island, had known Kyratsoula for two or three years, were her steadiest clients, and had also provided the potato peeler—that is, since we were friends—we could be safely ignored and treated like interlopers, our hunger subordinated to the appetites of strangers who would be gone tomorrow. After all, according to this way of thinking, what are friends for but to be scanted, exploited or abused?
Mutatis mutandis, this just about sums up the nature of American foreign policy on the world stage today. A Kyratsoulan America under the stewardship of Barack Obama practices outreach to non-client nations while, in the words of Richard Fernandez, “slapping around” friends and allies — Poland, the Czech Republic, Honduras, Columbia and, most emphatically, Israel.
“Over the long haul,” Fernandez writes, “international relations are about the keeping, not the wooing.” Indeed, so are all relations. Kyratsoula wooed her passing strangers and so failed to keep her most reliable customers, for when the season had started to taper off and her tables were more or less empty, we were already patronizing Kyria Nina’s taverna which had recently opened down the street, and brought our friends and visitors along with us. This became our habit over the ensuing years. Though not neglecting her other customers, Kyria Nina, who never asked to borrow our potato peeler, always saw to it that we were among the first to be served and that the kids didn’t fall asleep waiting interminably for their plate of fries. Meanwhile, except for the mid-summer traffic, Kyratsoula’s establishment did rather poorly and eventually lingered on as a village afterthought, before closing down entirely.
The moral of this little tale is entirely obvious but let me articulate it anyway. If America continues on her present path, catering to “strangers” while shunning her friends and stable clients, she will one day find her tables pretty well empty while some other nation down the way will do a thriving business at her expense. The Kyratsoula figure sitting in the White House has embarked on a policy based on the assumption of immediate gains but leading inevitably to diminishing returns. Charles Krauthammer is even blunter in his assessment of the president’s behavior. “Why this one-sidedness?” he asks, and replies, “Because Obama likes appeasing enemies while beating up on allies.” Be that as it may, apropos America’s relations with her traditional allies, Obama is either a false friend or a true enemy.
“No metaphor runs on all four legs,” said the poet Coleridge in his Biographia Literaria, so I will need to make a slight adjustment to my analogy. Unlike the relation between Kyratsoula and her customers, America’s allies are more dependent on her than vice-versa. Nonetheless, they all have something important to offer: exports, business opportunities, markets, strategic bases, areas of influence and, in the case of Israel, high-tech innovations in cybernetics, military applications, medicine and agriculture on which America (and much of the world) have come to rely.
And these are not mere potato peelers.