Diary

Where Will President Obama Bow Next? And Why?

President Obama bowed to the Emperor of Japan on his current tour of Asia. It was a full bow, with his upper body almost at right angles to the ground. Here’s the video:

Here’s what the New York Times had to say about the President of the United States bowing to the Emperor of Japan:

…the image…was indelible: an obsequent President, and the Emperor of Japan. Canadians still bow to England’s Queen; so do Australians. Americans shake hands. If not to stand eye-to-eye with royalty, what else were 1776 and all that about?

…But the “thou need not bow” commandment from the State Department’s protocol office maintained a constancy of more than 200 years. Administration officials scurried to insist that the eager-to-please President had not really done the unthinkable.

From this point on, things just get worse for “the first Pacific President. Much worse.

Of course, that quotation from the New York Times doesn’t refer to President Obama. Their criticism was for President Bill Clinton in 1994. And the “bow” that the Times was so upset about back then wasn’t a full-out, upper-body-bent-almost-parallel-with-the-floor, Japanese cultural bow of a peasant to the living embodiment of a god on earth. No, what the times was complaining about was an “almost bow” by Bill Clinton:

It wasn’t a bow, exactly. But Mr. Clinton came close. He inclined his head and shoulders forward, he pressed his hands together. It lasted no longer than a snapshot, but the image on the South Lawn was indelible: an obsequent President, and the Emperor of Japan.

As I write this, the New York Times has not indicated their reaction to the Obama-bow, however a lot has changed in fifteen years and I doubt they will express outratge. And this is not, of course, the first time that our current president has committed a breach of protocol and custom by bowing down to a foreign head of state. You might remember that he did the same thing while meeting the King of Saudi Arabia.

But why all of this controversy over a simple gesture of politeness?

Well, because politeness isn’t what it is. The act of bowing to a monarch or head of state is an indication of subservience, not of politeness. It indicates that the person you are bowing to has power over you, and that you acknowledge that fact. In Japan, people bow to those who are their superiors — their employers or elders, for example. And the depth of the bow indicates exactly how superior the person is. The lower you go, the lower you acknowledge that you are.

It would have been very hard for President Obama to have bowed any lower than he did before the Emperor of Japan and the King of Saudi Arabia unless he had gone down on his knees on the floor.

And that, perhaps, would have been overkill.

What makes this worse, from a protocol standpoint, is that this was not Barack Obama bowing to the Emperor of Japan. This was a state visit, and Barack Obama, as President Barack Obama, was representative of the United States of America. It is the same diplomatic mysticism that says that foreign embassies are extensions of the soil and sovereignty of a foreign nation and not really part of the country that they stand in. President, Kings and Emperors are symbols, not people.

It was the United States of America bowing low and lowly before Imperial Japan. And before that, doing the same before the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Surprisingly, however, President Obama did not bow to the Queen of England when they met.

Obviously, one might say, after having made a protocol error in Saudi Arabia, President Obama learned from his mistake and acted correctly when in the United Kingdom. That answer remained valid until yesterday, when he bowed before the Emperor of Japan.

One might ask, “Why did the President of the United States, after having made what could be called a “novice” error in bowing to the King of Saudi Arabia, and correctly behaving in England, make the same mistake again while meeting the Emperor of Japan?” His action in Japan certainly calls into question President Obama’s judgement and memory, if not his intellect.

His actions raise an even more interesting question: “Why did President Obama bow to the heads of state of two nations who hold a substantial majority of current U.S. debt, but not bow to the head of state of one of our strongest allies?” Surely the answer couldn’t be simple “sexism,” could it? Obsequious behavior to kings and emperors but superiority to queens? Surely not.

On the surface, the Obama bows appear to simply be a matter of the Obama administration recognizing the reality of America’s new place in the International Economic hierarchy. A reality where a spendthrift American government is at the mercy, and under the control, of those nations who supply our consumer goods and our oil. A global pecking-order in which America obeys the dictates of foreign nations in Asia, the Middle East and Europe on which wars are justified, which laws should be enforced and how high a standard of living U.S. citizens deserve. A New World Order where the United States is a debtor to all, and a shining beacon of hope to none.

An America, in fact, that is the triumph of American Liberalism. America as American Liberals have always perceived it and wanted it to be. An America that knows its place…and willingly takes it on the world stage.

Or perhaps “backstage”might be a more appropriate way to phrase it.

And this raises what may be the most important question of all. Will President Obama bow before China’s head of state?

China, after all, holds the majority of current U.S. debt. What is fair for the heads of state of the number 2 and number 3 U.S. debt-holder nations should certainly be fair for the head of state of the country we are most obligated to and dependent upon. Where does one draw the line once one has established a precedent?

Having bowed down in Japan and Saudi Arabia, if President Obama fails to bow down in China will that not be taken as a deliberate national insult in face-conscious Asia? And coming at a time when China has hinted they will be dropping support for the dollar?

So, is it an intellectual insufficiency, sexism, or economics that caused President Obama to bow down in Saudi Arabia and Japan? China will tell. The last questions are how low will he — and we — go? And why?