"He has been a creature of light at a time when the world has been darkening," says David Ignatius.
Jesus? Try again. Ignatius is talking about President Obama. About his "sterling assets," his "idealism," his "moral clarity," his "calm intellect," his "personal and polyphonous" address to the United Nations General Assembly, his "valedictory" speech in defense of the "liberal international order at a time when it’s under severe stress around the world."
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For a stress-induced headache you take an aspirin. What’s happening in the world today requires something much stronger. A farcical ceasefire in Syria has Americans blowing up Assad loyalists and Russians blowing up aid convoys. North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs horrify. China is more assertive by the day. Iranian terrorist, cyber, missile, and maritime threats are unimpeded.
"Obama will leave behind the right ideas for restoration of an American-led order," writes Ignatius, "but sadly, also, the inescapable fact of its decline during his presidency." I have read this sentence many times in amazement. Ignatius notes the decline of the "American-led order" over the last eight years while absolving the commander in chief of any responsibility.
I didn’t listen to Obama’s speech in sadness. I listened in dismay. Dismay at the blithe and aloof manner in which the president described the current moment he helped create, disgust at the sanctimony and elitism of a globalization "course correction" that is really just a doubling down on current policy.
"Polyphonous"? Whatever you say David. It was also revolting.
"This is the paradox that defines our world today," Obama told the U.N. "A quarter century after the end of the Cold War, the world is by many measures less violent and more prosperous than ever before, and yet our societies are filled with uncertainty, and unease, and strife."
We are indeed richer, fatter, and more peaceful. We have more toys. So why is it that we are also anxious, polarized, dismayed? No answer is offered. The paradox is not resolved. Instead we are admonished to "press forward with a better model of cooperation and integration" rather than "retreat into a world sharply divided, and ultimately in conflict, along age-old lines of nation and tribe and race and religion."
Why? "The principles of open markets and accountable governance, of democracy and human rights and international law that we have forged remain the firmest foundations for progress in this century." But this is a non sequitur. One second he’s saying a world constructed under liberal democratic principles has also brought social disintegration and unhappiness, and the next second he says the answer is—more liberal democracy.
Nor is the president’s "better model" of global integration different from the status quo. He says economic policies intended to lessen inequality will reduce tribalism despite pointing out earlier that tribalism exists in the midst of peace and prosperity.
He wants his climate treaty to go into effect despite not submitting it to the Senate for ratification. "We have to open our hearts and do more to help refugees who are desperate for a home." And "we can only realize the promise of this institution’s founding—to replace the ravages of war with cooperation—if powerful nations accept constraints." Because
I am convinced that in the long run, giving up some freedom of action—not giving up our ability to protect ourselves or pursue our core interests, but binding ourselves to international rules over the long term—enhances our security.
We’ll be safer if Ban Ki Moon has a greater say over our lives.
I don’t buy it, I never have, and that is the point. None of this is any different from what President Obama has been saying for eight years. And during this time America’s global position has eroded, our friends have been confused, our enemies emboldened, a Caliphate established, and ethnic, racial, and economic tensions resurgent.
Not to worry. One more speech will do the trick.
I’d like to posit that there is no paradox. The material prosperity and security of the West matters insofar as it has given our political, business, and cultural elites a false picture of human needs, motivations, and priorities.
What is driving the forces of "nation and tribe and race and religion" is not economics but pride and shame. The indignity of abasement, the thirst for recognition, the quest for dominance vis-à-vis other groups both within and without the nation. These are parts of "our common humanity" that the ideology of liberalism fails to recognize. That is its weakness.
China builds its forces after a "century of humiliation." Russia asserts itself after the "geopolitical catastrophe" of the Soviet collapse. Islamic militancy, wrote Bernard Lewis decades ago, is part of a "rising tide of rebellion against this Western paramountcy, and a desire to reassert Muslim values and restore Muslim greatness." The English, Germans, French, Greeks repudiate the E.U. because they feel insulted by the hegemony of Brussels.
It’s the same at home. Sexual minorities struggle for equal treatment in both the public and private spheres. African-American communities revolt over maltreatment by police forces. And a large number of voters, many of them whites without college degrees, protest affronts to their status, their thoughts, their concerns, their agendas, their hierarchy of values.
These battles aren’t about how much you have. They are about who rules over you. Will D.C. and Brussels make decisions or will Moscow and Beijing? Will you have a say over which treaties your nation enters, which refugees settle in your community, what can and cannot be said, which facts are deemed important and which not?
President Obama’s speech at the U.N. was almost a parody of liberal theory. It presented a homogenous world governed by rationally administered universal principles, a vision of affluence and peace, of moral imagination and compassion and hybrid identity. These are noble ideas. They have motivated men for centuries. Yet so detached has the theory become from the everyday reality of the people that it is ossified, hollow. It’s dogma. And it is careening toward a fall.