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Simon Rosenberg

Simon Rosenberg

Posted: June 16, 2009 11:25 AM

Obama: No Realist He


I'm not going to have enough time to get this all out this morning, but to start, I want to agree with folks like Fareed Zakaria and Zbig Brzezinski that the central dynamic driving global politics today is the "rise of the rest," or the powerful aspiration of the rising peoples and nations of the world to have their shot at a version of what we call the American Dream. That dynamic, which Barack Obama began to address in his Cairo speech, involves many other strands of history -- the end of colonialism and the Cold War, the transformative cultural impact of globalization, rising standards of living around the world, the rapid spread of the Internet and mobile devices putting ever more powerful tools in the hands of the world's people, the emergence of a global Millennial Generation comfortable with these tools, more affluent and educated and globally aware than their parents, eager to seek a better life for themselves and their countries.

Informing and inspiring this global transformation of course is the radical promise of equal opportunity for all offered by the America's founding fathers. Obama discussed it this way in his recent Cairo speech:

....Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire. The United States has been one of the greatest sources of progress that the world has ever known. We were born out of revolution against an empire. We were founded upon the ideal that all are created equal, and we have shed blood and struggled for centuries to give meaning to those words - within our borders, and around the world. We are shaped by every culture, drawn from every end of the Earth, and dedicated to a simple concept: E pluribus unum: "Out of many, one."


......I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq. So let me be clear: no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.

That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people. Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.

There is no straight line to realize this promise. But this much is clear: governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure. Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments - provided they govern with respect for all their people.

This last point is important because there are some who advocate for democracy only when they are out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others. No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.

As Obama alludes to in his speech, the way President Bush attempted to "spread democracy" did much in recent years to undermine and degrade the American-championed vision of democracy just as an enormous part of the world was awakening to its possibilities. This disappointment with the perceived anti-democratic leanings of an American President acting on the global stage -- at this point in history -- itself became a very powerful global dynamic, and was central to the global rejection of Bush and the neocons by peoples and governments around the world.

Another factor in this "rise of the rest" is race, the emergence of non-white European global powers and peoples. Only about a billion of the world's seven billion people are of white European heritage, and there can be little doubt now that this century will see the America-European dominated global order give way to one more representative of the people of the world and its emerging demographic realities. We saw some of the first manifestations of this in the recent G-20 meetings with the discussion of how to reorganize the IMF. The seats at the tables of power will be increasingly occupied by non-white, non-Europeans, which in and of itself will become a powerful visual, or as we call it, "optic," in the emerging global order of the 21st century.

Which brings me to Barack Obama, a self-described racial "mutt," a man who grew up in multiracial societies in Indonesia and Hawaii, and who was elected with the very potent high-tech and democratizing "new tools" of the 21st century. In ways that I think we are only beginning to understand, he has himself become the extraordinary global symbol to those aspiring for more for themselves and their countries everywhere - the story of an outsider, a member of an oppressed class made good; of the overthrown of a oligarchical oppressive power through a popular democratic uprising; of the use of powerful new tools to give regular people a voice in their own futures; and one of the most powerful parts of this story, the emergence of a non-white leader as the leader of the most important nation in the world, at this time of the "rise of the rest."

For all of these reasons I don't think Barack Obama has the option of becoming an advocate of the realist school of American foreign policy. He has already been cast in a different role by history -- one of inspiring champion of all those throughout the world who need someone to speak for them. I will not argue that what we are seeing in Iran today is a direct result of the Cairo speech, or of Obama's direct inspiration to the forces of modernization and democratization inside Iran. But there can be no doubt that Obama's rise has injected a new inspiring dynamic into the rising world, and these forces, unleashed, have the potential to remake the world for good or ill. Our president, as chief global advocate of free and open societies, cannot sit on the sidelines as people attempt to throw off the shackles of old and anti-democratic regimes. This moment is too important, this particular leader too powerful, for America not to ambitiously re-assert itself as the great global champion of universal aspirations of all the world's peoples.

Where this takes us it is too early to tell, but go there we must, as are witnessing the birth of a global "new politics" of the 21st century very different from the global politics of the century just past. And in Barack Obama, this "new politics" has found its first global leader and inspired champion. May he have the courage and vision to seize this global opportunity, as this may be, more so than any other, his ultimate calling.

Cross-posted at the NDN Blog.