Who’s Afraid Of Barack Obama?

“While no longer accepting any special responsibility on the world stage, Obama pretends that we are all citizens together. Like Hamlet the President soliloquises; he does not act”

On March 4, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson gave his second inaugural address. “We are provincials no longer,” he declared. “The tragic events of the thirty months of vital turmoil through which we have just passed have made us citizens of the world.” Five months before, he had been re-elected on the slogan: “He kept us out of the war.” But in the meantime, the Germans had resumed unrestricted submarine warfare. By the time Wilson spoke, he had resolved to side with the Allies. The true significance of American intervention in a European conflict would extend far beyond its ultimately decisive impact on the war itself. Wilson grasped that the United States was acknowledging that its “manifest destiny” now embraced defending liberty and justice, not only on a continental but on a global scale: “There can be no turning back.”

Wilson was drawing on a long history of thinking about what it might mean to be a citizen of the world, going back at least to Immanuel Kant’s vision of “perpetual peace”. Even Machiavelli recognised ethical constraints on rulers, as Phillip Bobbitt shows in his new study of the Renaissance sage, The Garments of Court and Palace. What we would call genocide and ethnic cleansing “are such vile practices, not only incompatible with a Christian way of life but with any civilised form of living, that every man should abhor such methods and decide to live as a private citizen rather than rule at the cost of such devastation to others”. John Stuart Mill, speaking to the Commons in 1867 on “England’s Danger through Suppression of Her Maritime Power”, denied that his argument had “even a tinge of nationality about it. It is on the broadest cosmopolitan and humanitarian principles that I rest the case.” This “cosmopolitan patriotism” caused him to reject isolationism, of the kind now advocated by libertarians such as Rand Paul, as “a principle of utter selfishness”. 

In an important article that appeared last month in Commentary, the distinguished American diplomat and neoconservative thinker Elliott Abrams argues that Barack Obama sees himself as a citizen of the world. He set out this idea in the celebrated speech he made in Berlin during the 2008 campaign that catapulted him into the White House. “Tonight, I speak to you, not as a candidate for president, but as a citizen — a proud citizen of the United States, and a fellow citizen of the world.” Obama told the ecstatic crowd that “the burdens of global citizenship continue to bind us together”. He was greeted like John F. Kennedy, whose speech in 1963 had reassured Berliners that America would not abandon their city.

Five years later, Obama returned to Berlin last June to commemorate Kennedy’s speech, greeted this time by a much smaller and less enthusiastic audience. For Obama, though, nothing had changed: “We are not only citizens of America or Germany — we are also citizens of the world. And our fates and fortunes are linked like never before.” But in recalling Kennedy’s famous line “Ich bin ein Berliner“, Obama added a new gloss. Invidiously, he singled out Afghans, Burmese and “those who work for an Israeli-Palestinian peace” as “the citizens who long to join the free world. They are who you were. They deserve our support, for they too, in their own way, are citizens of Berlin.” 

Quite apart from the implication that Israel is not yet part of the free world, this is the politics of buck-passing. President Obama has a global responsibility to protect the victims of war and genocide, but so does everybody else. While no longer acknowledging any special responsibility, he compensates by pretending that we are all citizens together. Citizens of the world, unite: you have nothing to lose but US protection. This watered-down world citizenship is quite different to Kennedy’s gesture of solidarity to Berlin at a moment of real peril. 

What, in such a world, do the “burdens of global citizenship” really amount to? Are the “fates and fortunes” of Syrian refugees actually linked to our own, except in the sense that we may watch them on YouTube? In its practice, if not in its rhetoric, the Obama administration takes the view that “fate” and “fortune” must be allowed to take their course, and are certainly no business of the US government. Like Hamlet, the President soliloquises; he does not act.

Abrams fears that if Obama’s policies are not reversed, “they will produce an America that is a ‘citizen of the world’ like all the others, shorn of the ability to lead and believing that leadership means little more than hubris and risk.” The “post-American presidency”, the term coined three years ago by the former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton, writing in Standpoint, has morphed into the “citizen of the world presidency”. Abrams recalls the incumbency of Jimmy Carter. His presidency was cut short by Ronald Reagan, who capitalised on the sense of impotence that gripped America. Obama won a second term, but he too seems impotent. 

Whereas Wilson saw it as his duty, both as a patriot and as a global citizen, to “walk with the light all about us if we be but true to ourselves”, Obama “leads from behind”. The once-noble title “citizen of the world” has been hollowed out and emptied of meaning. This is a president who just wants to be loved. As Machiavelli says, “Of course, one would prefer to be both loved and feared, but since this is unlikely it is much safer to be feared.” Who’s afraid of Barack Obama?

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