Barack Obama really is the first global leader that the world has ever known.
The son of a Kenyan, he straddles continents and cultures. In his youth he studied the Quran, and as an adult he was baptized. His multicultural background enables him to speak the language of a globalized world, in which people of diverse origins encounter each other and negotiate common meaning across shrinking cultural divides.
And through modern technology, Obama appeals directly to 6 billion people, in much the same way that he used the Internet and his BlackBerry to appeal directly to American voters.
Most U.S. journalists and scholars have interpreted Obama's inaugural address as an important speech to the U.S. electorate, but they miss the crucial fact that his audience far exceeded American society, that millions of outsiders clung to his words.
Obama is certainly a phenomenon. What is more, with his style he may be solving a conundrum that has plagued the foreign policy establishment for two decades: how to approach a world in which national borders have lost some significance as separators and sovereignty becomes less and less meaningful.
About 20 years ago, scholars of international relations began noticing tectonic shifts in the nation-state system. Sovereignty, its anchoring principle, was eroding, and states were losing control over the flows of goods, capital, humans and data that crossed their national borders day in, day out. Corporations demanded access to the international bargaining table, while nongovernmental organizations launched intercontinental campaigns demanding the same privilege.
In such a world, American foreign policy will lack effectiveness if it operates strictly within the confines of traditional diplomacy. At the same time, it must not ignore national governments. After all, nation states continue to be the backbone of the international system, even if they are weakened.
If his inaugural address is any indication, President Obama will take up the challenge on two levels. On one, he continues to work within the nation-state system. One the other, he transcends it and addresses the people of other countries directly. His framework for comprehending the world is a version of cosmopolitanism. His central vehicle for advancing cosmopolitan ideas is the American myth, into which he invites the citizens of the world.
Let me explain.
The American Myth
The old international order consisted of nations governed by states: enormous bureaucratic machineries that taxed, policed and regulated their territories. The boundary of the nation was defined by a country's international borders. The glue holding the nation together was a myth of unity. In European countries this myth invoked some kind of common ancestry, often supported by ancient narrative poetry and stories (King Arthur for England, the Illiad for Greece, etc.). In the United States — where common ancestry and ancient tales could scarcely be asserted — the myth pointed to common aspirations.
Shaped by the experience of the early European settlers, the American myth took the form of a God-given promise. Originally cast as a Protestant covenant with God, it later became secularized and imbued with the individualist enlightenment ideals of freedom and the pursuit of happiness. Today, the content of the promise is more enigmatic. But far from being a weakness, this lack of contour makes the myth malleable and starkly more useful to opinion leaders who seek to adapt it to new times and challenges.
The promise has two important characteristics. First, it is within citizens' view but beyond their grasp. Second, its realization is not a matter of passively waiting for a day of judgment or deliverance. Instead, it requires the citizens' active labor, their movement toward the covenant's shining light.
The lure of the American guarantee propelled Europeans to cross the Atlantic and Asians to cross the Pacific. It sustained the morale of pioneers from the Eastern Seaboard, who undertook the arduous journey towards California and the golden West. It drove the Mormons to build God's chosen society in Utah. In the 19th century, it crystallized in the concept of the Manifest Destiny.
Unlike national identities that are based on blood lines, the American myth has long been open to outsiders who came to America, so long as they shared a belief in the American promise. No president, however, has ever attempted to invite the rest of the world to participate in the American myth while remaining in their own countries and their own cultures. Here Obama differs from his predecessors, for he used his inaugural address to redefine the American myth and its relationship to the world.
President Obama's inaugural address is ripe with multiple layers of meaning. He incorporates Gen. George Washington and the first battle of Trenton, Moses' exodus from Egypt, Martin Luther King Jr.'s march on Washington, the Jewish quest for justice, and the inaugural addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 and John F. Kennedy in 1961. These references were evident to those in the know and they positioned Obama in relation to specific leaders and target groups. To the outsiders for whom these references were too subtle, the surface content carried a message of steadfastness, tolerance, forgiveness and idealism.
Throughout his address, Obama placed heavy emphasis on the American guarantee. U.S. society, he said, carries the "God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness."
God, he affirmed, called on Americans to shape an uncertain destiny. He asked Americans to let it be said that "with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations." His interpretation of the American promise was a mixture of the Protestant covenant and enlightenment ideals. At the same time, he stressed that it did not cover a merely Christian nation, but rather one that was a patchwork of "Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and nonbelievers."
In addition to citing the promise on numerous occasions, Obama also imbued his presentation with a great deal of movement in pursuit of the national purpose. The ancestors of today's citizens, he explained, "packed up their few worldly possessions and travelled across the ocean in search of a new life. . . . They toiled in sweatshops and settled the West."
The president admonished his audience to "mark this (inauguration) day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled." For a while America halted, "standing pat." Now, however, it was time to "pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America."
Obama was, of course, aware that many challenges obstruct the promise. They are to be overcome with the values of hard work, honesty, tolerance and courage that "have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history." And in one of his last sentences, he urged Americans to "let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back."
President Obama thus wants American society to apply steady and deliberate movement in order to realize God's pledge. But where is this movement to lead? Here lies the president's true innovation. Unlike past presidents, who engaged the international community but did so with the caveat that the goal of any U.S. policy was to bring measurable benefit to the United States, Obama extends the American promise to the world.
The enlightenment ideals of the Founding Fathers, he explained, light not only the United States, but the world. In reminiscence of Woodrow Wilson, he explained that America finds its security not solely through armor, but by giving outsiders the benefit of the doubt, engaging in dialogue with the Muslim world and by convincing people of other countries that the United States stands for justice. This indicates that America's leadership will be based on compliance with international law and a commitment to the American values that were at the heart of international human rights.
Obama seeks to bring the American promise to all U.S. citizens, and in doing so offer a societal model for people in other parts of the globe. More significantly, perhaps, he wants every American to realize "that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly" (emphasis added). The implication of all this is that under Obama's watch, America will not use "freedom" as a code word for bolstering narrowly construed national interests. Rather, America offers to share its myth and its promise with the rest of the world.
In the academic world of political science, there is a clearly recognized mainstream view of moral community, and it is tied up with the nation state. Those who live in a nation owe each other solidarity.
Beyond national borders, however, solidarity ends, and as the outward representative of its people, it is the state's responsibility to gear its foreign policies toward the maximization of the nation's well-being. Cosmopolitans, on the other hand, trace their roots back to thinkers such as Immanuel Kant. They hold that moral community does not end at national boundaries. Instead, every human being is in community with every other human being in the world, and therefore bears responsibility for his or her well-being. Obama's address clearly marks him as a cosmopolitan. This sets him apart from the "good neighbor" internationalism of preceding U.S. presidents.
In the era of globalization, where sovereignty is eroding, cosmopolitanism is a pragmatic and tantalizing alternative. It appeals to those of us who are not Americans, and it is a welcome antidote to the veiled imperialism of the previous administration. Obama might just pull it off. Let's wish him luck.
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