‘Mr Obama subscribes to the European critique of the Bush administration, but the self-abasement that the critics demand from America is as implausible as it is undesirable’
Europe has fallen in love. And, like all lovers, it idealises the beloved. Barack Obama is already by far the most popular international statesman in the world. Given that he has yet to take office, that is no mean achievement. In such an atmosphere, however, even to scrutinise the great man’s credentials is tantamount to lèse majesté. If that is an offence, it is one to which we plead guilty. Rather than prejudge the president-elect, however, we prefer to keep our powder dry. He has not had a chance to show whether he intends to be, as Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian ruefully put it, “just a smarter hawk” or rather, in M. Obama’s own words, a radical who wants to “break free from the constraints that were placed by the founding fathers in the [US] Constitution” in order to override “negative liberties” in the name of “redistributive change”.
It is hardly surprising that Mr Obama subscribes to the European critique of the Bush administration. However, it is also possible that he has internalised the more damning accusations levelled against America by its enemies. He apparently believes that America is largely to blame for this hostility. In that case, the real meaning of his slogans would seem to be this: Yes, we can change – our society, our constitution, our identity – and we must do so if Americans are to rejoin the rest of the human race.
If Mr Obama turned out to be a revolutionary of this kind, he would repudiate the unrivalled status of America as the champion of the West. President George W. Bush challenged Europe by reasserting the right of America to defend itself, pre-emptively if necessary, not only by military means but by spreading Western values: liberty, democracy and the rule of law. The Bush doctrine is not a neoconservative concoction, but emerges from a tradition. America has long based its claim to global leadership on the fact that it embodies and defends principles that are not only morally pre-eminent but also universal. Europeans who have espoused a secular, relativist world view tend to object to American moral universalism as arrant hypocrisy.
Yet Western civilisation actually presupposes the universal validity of its principles, which incorporate Judaeo-Christian ethics in secular form. Their universality reflects the notion that we are made in the image of God, and it is no accident that successive US presidents have invoked the Almighty quite naturally in the pursuit of America’s providential mission. In this respect, the Obama presidency – which explicitly draws on the legacy of Martin Luther King – is likely to offer continuity rather than change.
An “Obama doctrine” that abandoned the universality and moral pre-eminence of Western values would not merely be an abandonment of the Bush doctrine, but an abdication of the basic premise of American leadership. The self-abasement that a chorus of critics have demanded from America is as implausible as it is undesirable. So far, Mr Obama has shown no sign that he is about to grovel to America’s adversaries, or even to its allies. The danger is that, in distancing himself from an unpopular predecessor, he will also abandon the cause for which so much blood and treasure has been sacrificed, leaving the rest of the free world to fend for itself. For the sake of Western civilisation, Mr Obama may have to break Europe’s heart