Obama’s age of atonement
By Christopher Caldwell
Published: September 25 2009 22:43 in the Financial Times
There used to be a joke in San Francisco that the prettiest view of the Bay Area was from the top of the Transamerica building. Why? Because that was the only place in the city from which you couldn’t see the Transamerica building. In a similar way, the rosiest view of globalization has traditionally come from the American governing classes – from which you cannot see the interests of the major globalisers, only the ideals. Barack Obama’s speech to the United Nations this week is a sign that he is having no more success than his predecessors in figuring out where interests leave off and ideals pick up.
It is embarrassing to accuse an American politician of wishing for “global government” – a bête noire of uncouth anti-communists in the 1950s and 1960s. But Mr Obama’s arguments are meant to move matters in that direction – away from self-determination and towards what is today called co-operation. “Like all of you, my responsibility is to act in the interest of my nation and my people,” he said, “and I will never apologize for defending those interests. But it is my deeply held belief that in the year of 2009 the interests of nations and peoples are shared.” The key word in this passage, as anyone can see, is “but”.
More from this columnist – Dec-03
Mr Obama talks about giving “meaning to the promise embedded in the name given to this institution: the United Nations. That is the future America wants.” Well, if he is right, then Americans have been lying to pollsters for a long time. Naturally, there are good arguments that the US should submit to the same international norms as everybody else. But those arguments need to be made to Americans, not to foreign heads of state.
From the very beginning of the speech, Mr Obama sought to atone for the administration of George W. Bush. But he did this in a bizarre way. He presented the behaviour of the US over the past decade as a kind of fugue – an aberration caused by the toxic leadership of Mr Bush himself. Not for Mr Obama any Konrad Adenauer-style working through of the past – it was “Don’t look at me! I didn’t do it!” Mr Obama is entitled to say so, but he cannot speak for his country when he does. The Iraq war was enormously popular until the US began to lose it. One cannot mollify international detractors by referring to “the concrete actions that we have taken in just nine months”.
The US character goes back more than nine months, and so do US interests. The new order Mr Obama has in mind will either be too easy (leaving the structure of US interests untouched and hoping the world will be satisfied by the mere lack of Mr Bush) or too hard (throwing out the interests, too). “No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed,” Mr Obama says. “The traditional division between nations of the south and north makes no sense in an interconnected world.”
Mr Obama has committed his citizens to an expensive and open-ended period of reparation and repentance, and placed himself in a logical contradiction. He promised in his speech that the US would “be a leader in bringing about change”, “lead by example”, move “from a bystander to a leader in international climate negotiations” and accept an “obligation to lead” on the environment. But US leadership is a political fact, not a law of nature. The thing that the US leads is the world system that Mr Obama wants us to repudiate. If “the old habits and arguments are irrelevant”, as he says, then why should the US lead? Why shouldn’t someone else lead? Systems that elevate one nation over another can indeed be unjust. But the only alternative on the horizon is to let groups of nations with common interests (whether “the international community” or the UN) harass small countries they disapprove of, from Serbia to Honduras to Israel. Some may like the outcomes better. But it is no advance for legitimacy.
The UN speech gives a hint to why the percentage of the US population that is uneasy with Mr Obama has grown steadily. The coolness that was so appealing in the campaigner is a liability in the president. Mr Obama is more comfortable analysing the international alignment of interests than in defending the particular interests of the US. In fact, to say, as he does, that “the interests of nations and peoples are shared” is to say that national interest is an illusion in the first place.
Mr Obama prefers idealism to pragmatism. He notes that the UN was forged in an “idealism that was anything but naive – it was rooted in the hard-earned lessons of war”. The idea that war cures people of their naivety is debatable. War can be a school for naivety, because naivety helps one survive a war with one’s sanity intact. The treaty of Versailles, the League of Nations, the Kellogg-Briand pact were all results of a naivety bred of the first world war. In the US, we owe those three great disasters of the last generation – urban renewal, the highway system and the Vietnam war – to the naivety bred of second world war.
A long US tradition made it possible for Mr Obama to talk the way he did this week. Presidents Reagan, Clinton and both Bushes decked out their foreign policy in a lot of shining-city-on-a-hill rhetoric – the belief that there is no conflict between US values and the values of ordinary people round the world. This belief is false. The conclusion earlier presidents drew was that the world should follow America. We know how the world reacted. The conclusion Mr Obama draws is that America should follow the world. Americans’ reaction will not be hard to predict.