Tearing Down Walls: Chauvinism, Exceptionalism, Universalism, Globalism

Barack Obama is surely right that America can only lead to a better world by tearing down walls rather than picking divisive fights; can his combination of globalism and keeping military options on the table win politically?

“The walls between old allies on either side of the Atlantic cannot stand. The walls between the countries with the most and those with the least cannot stand. The walls between races and tribes; natives and immigrants; Christian and Muslim and Jew cannot stand. These now are the walls we must tear down.”

Barack Obama, speaking as “a citizen of the world” as well as a proud (but not chauvinist) American, has now implicitly framed the choice between himself and McCain as for world leadership that unites diverse peoples, builds global competence and marginalizes extremists, as against endless belligerence that sees Islamic extremism as a permanent threat that is expected to last even longer than Soviet Communism, and thus alienates allies we will need to solve global problems.

Obama is right as a matter of policy that the ideological competition is more crucial over the long term than the military one, and his rhetoric on Afghanistan and Iran leaves little reasonable ground for attacking him as being naive or soft.

But I am sure there are thousands (hundreds?) of Democrats today — remnants of the Scoop Jackson wing of the party, as well as McGovernites who got tired of being beaten politically by Republicans during the Cold War — who are cringing at the speech and its title, “A World That Stands as One,” with its echoes of the last line of John Lennon’s song “Imagine.” Accusations that Obama favors world government will surely follow, and be damning.

I am betting they are wrong. I am thinking that globalization, generational change, the experience of the seven years since 9/11, and the hollowness of the Bush administration’s threat mongering (especially now that we are talking to every part of the “axis of evil”), and the lack of forces available for deployment, together with Obama’s confidence, will enable him to prevail.

Obama has to be careful that he doesn’t seem to be promising quick progress toward world peace, and he needs to continue to evidence realism about the problems we face, but in the end isn’t a president who will work with other countries on the assumption that people have common aspirations a more attractive prospect than one who will snarl at the world and insist that we need to “lead” with the end of the spear?

Obama is a realist who inspires hope and common purpose; this is infinitely preferable to a candidate whose main claim on election is a (largely baseless) assertion that he “knows how to win wars.”

If Obama’s rhetoric has any flavor of naivete, it is surely a more tasty flavor than the neocon naivete (of which Randy Scheunemann, McCain’s security adviser, was a significant progenitor) that viewed elections — even achieved at gun point — as a quick solution to the problems of the Arab world.