Major powers may interpret Pope Francis’s foreign policy initiatives as either promising or problematic. As expected, the Obama Administration has been assessing the pontiff’s calibrated moves in the global political arena. It appears both President Obama and the papal leader share common perspectives on several key issues, but sometimes differ on interpretation, interests, and tact. However, harmonising their strategies could pay dividends in handling contentious international matters.
The Pope’s recent flourishes have rankled some leaders and congregants and pleased others. Condemning the Turks for alleged “genocide” against Armenians, brokering a US-Cuba accord, underscoring the Vatican’s recognition of the State of Palestine, and beatifying Palestinian nuns are indicators of the pontiff’s activism and unconventional approach to foreign policy.
In addition, his trumpeting an end to poverty, call for economic justice, and admonition that God will judge the wealthy is understandable, given his own origins in the southern hemisphere where social despair is most prevalent.
The Church has fused religion and politics for generations. And so have other faiths blurred, in varying degrees, the lines between religious belief and temporal practice, straddling ecclesiastical and mundane norms. In addition, the pontiff has ample time, space and authority to resort to praxis when pursuing lofty causes.
In comparison to President Obama, it appears Pope Francis can exert his leadership with less obstruction and recriminations from detractors. The real constraints on the Pope are conservative Vatican sceptics and traditional Catholics who wish the Church to be true to their interpretation of its canons and eschew what they consider meddling in temporal matters outside of its purview.
By contrast, President Obama is facing a cantankerous Congress jockeying for partisan benefits as national elections loom. Notwithstanding constitutional checks and partisan objections, while still in office President Obama could apply presidential executive powers for policies that reflect his philosophy. The results could raise his status from leader to statesman, similar to Pope Francis.
In a sense, Obama would be well served if he grafted his pragmatism with a vision that melds practical problem-solving with an overarching coherent body of ideas and aims that reminds, refines, and even goes beyond the National Security Strategy document. By so doing, Obama could re-engage domestic and foreign publics — as has the pontiff.
The groundswell that brought Obama to office in 2008 has dwindled, due largely to partisan wrangling. He needs to reiterate publicly his cohesive vision for the country, which could improve his current modest showing in public opinion polls.
In preparation for Pope Francis’s September visit to Cuba and the US, the White House and State Department should encourage President Obama to make explicit — in tandem with the Pope — the foreign policy issues on which they both agree. Clearly, there are areas where both leaders differ tactically, such as how to deal with Russia’s involvement in Ukraine. Such differences should be broached.
As the Church positions itself as an influential player on the world stage after a hiatus under the previous pontiff, both Francis and Obama could consider integrating their common interests and methods, among them buttressing moderate Islam against jihadism.
An ecumenical dialogue among religious leaders of different faiths would send a strong message to nihilists, religious extremists, and potential followers that the international community will unite on common confessional values of decency to thwart their barbarity.
Like twins, both Obama and Francis have spearheaded the pollination and creative handling of policy options. In that regard, Cuba offers a window for a new beginning that is symbolic for several reasons.
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Pope Francis and President Obama: Almost Twins