Dispatch October 2009

What Obama's Nobel Really Means

A growing contingent wants Obama to lead a post-nationalist global society. If he does things right, the U.S. could become history's first truly international nation.
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Both the Right and the Left in the United States have joined in disbelief at the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Barack Obama. For the Right, the decision constitutes further proof of Europe’s moral decadence, for the Left, the award seems premature and complicates Obama’s position on the home front. In fact, the award signals a cry for leadership of a global civil society that is fitfully emerging, and which an American president, precisely because of his own country’s power, is best positioned to take on.

What is global civil society? It features an internationalist outlook that transcends individual state interests—encapsulating everything from media outlets like CNN International or the English-language version of Al Jazeera television, to United Nations agencies, and the worldwide movement of non-governmental organizations, or NGOs. It refers to the generous labors of any number of relief charities operating in poor or war-torn countries. It implies, in other words, an altruism that transcends national, religious, and ethnic borders to include humanity as a whole.

During the Cold War and earlier, many of these people might have been socialists or leftists of some stripe, engaged in peace and disarmament activities as a mechanism for their post-national idealism. But with the Left ostensibly defeated by the particular way in which the Cold War ended, these people have found other means by which to escape the strictures of loyalty to merely one state.

Indeed, a characteristic of the Left has always been its suspicion of power concentrations, and today’s post-nationalists exhibit a similar tendency. What, after all, is the ultimate mission of independent media outlets and many NGOs, but to scrutinize those in power? The Right, which worships power, looks down on such people and organizations. But it is making a big mistake.

I have spent the past few weeks attending a U.N. conference in Italy and touring slums in Bangladesh with NGOs, and can fairly say that the Right is blind to what is nothing less than a global civil society movement, which spans many nations. This movement is not new, of course, and I have obviously been aware of it for many years. But it is through my reporting around the developing world recently that I have witnessed first-hand the growth in organization and in intensity of this global humanitarian class.

This new class does not hate the United States: rather, it is simply dissatisfied with national power as the means for dealing with international problems like extreme poverty. To explain this better, let me make a reference to the pre-World War II Indian independence movement. That movement’s spiritual leader, Mohandas K. Gandhi, said that while the independence movement’s concern was to evict Great Britain from the Asian Subcontinent, its larger purpose was to empower the poor. Thus, Gandhi created a model for a national movement with international humanitarian ambitions. So, in a different way, did the American Revolution, which sought to make the United States a beacon for freedom the world-over. The new global humanitarian class now wants to take this model a step further, by empowering itself over nations.

And what better vehicle for this movement than Obama, whom today’s humanitarians see as a potential Constantine the Great, the Roman Emperor of the Fourth Century who embraced Christianity, and thus put all the levers of Roman power in the service of the True Faith.

This is not gooey-eyed idealism. The father of modern realism himself, the late University of Chicago academic Hans Morgenthau, intimated in his classic work, Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace (1948), that there is such a thing as a universal moral conscience that limits the actions of individual great powers as they jockey for position among themselves.

American conservatism, consequently, needs to free itself from the compulsion for national power alone, and to recognize that as economic and social integration gathers apace, the global civil society movement can only grow, thus increasingly circumscribing the actions of a superpower like the United States.

Obama’s dilemma is that he encapsulates the responsibilities of a nation-state, required to navigate a world shaped by political and military power, even as he is also the focus of global humanitarians who are suspicious of this power, and yearn for his leadership. The Nobel committee hopes that by giving him this award, he will lean toward the humanitarian side—away from the naked interests of the very state he leads.

But Obama must do something slightly different. He must join forces with this worldwide movement in a way that advances the power of his own country. He must make the United States the guardian of the global commons, both in a moral and in a military sense. This he cannot do with one speech, or through the adroit handling of one crisis, but through many speeches and many crises, ceding power in some areas to international organizations, so as to retain U.S. national power in a plethora of other vital areas.

Obama must, ultimately, help make the U.S. the guarantor of global civil society. We must become history’s first international nation.

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Robert D. Kaplan is the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. He is the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 

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