Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Meaning of Obama (EN)

America is not just a country like others. It is also a concept, an integral part of the collective conscience of the world. An ideal of freedom and limitless opportunity. The American dream is not the dream of Americans, it is a part of the dreams of many around the world. America's messianic ambition ("Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..." reads the bronze plaque inside the Statue of Liberty) has inspired not only the millions of migrants, who left their countries and communities for a fresh start in the New World; but also those who remained behind to claim their rights and challenge their rulers.
Thus, America in a way is necessarily always bigger than itself. Its meaning to the world far exceeds its historical incarnation at any given moment.
The real America is far from perfect, and its short history is a troubled, violent one. It has crashed more dreams than it helped to achieve. It is bound to eventually disappoint anyone who upholds its ultimate, absolute meaning. But the ideal endures nonetheless, not so much because of what America concretely is, but because of what it means to mankind. And the metaphor of the City upon a Hill, which the world watches for inspiration, has been a continuous thread through its existence and a factor in the background of all its manifestations on the world scene. This ideal is not within the ownership of the US - rather, it is co-owned with much of the rest of the world. Many people around the world have their own version of America, an aspirational vision in their mind, for which the actual US is just an imperfect approximation - but still the closest approximation that exists in reality.
In concrete terms, America is expected to adhere to higher standards than a 'normal' country; it cannot pursue its naked interests on the international scene in an unprincipled way, but has to translate its actions into the language of universal principles of freedom and democracy. This exigence imposes some limitations to what it can do at a given time, but at the same time provides the foundation for America's unmatched soft power - the power of ideas and of influencing others. Which in turn means that America can pretty much set the rules of the international system - but then it has to play by them.
The bicentennial history of the US can be seen as a succession of high points, where the real US got closer to the ideal America (e.g. President Wilson's Fourteen Points in 1918, or the uncompromising stand of President Reagan against the "evil empire" of the communist block), and of low points, where the real US significantly failed the high standards of its ideal image (e.g. the support given during the cold war to right-wing dictatorships in Latin America). But even at its worst, most of the time it still compared well with virtually all the other countries, and its role and influence as leader of the free world was never significantly challenged or questioned.
That is, until recently.
In late 2000, executive power in the US was captured by an ideologically very cohesive group, with an agenda to radically transform the country and the world. The rest is history. The neoconservatives' idea of America's exceptionalism was so radical that it translated into aggressive unilateralism in world politics and disdain for international law and institutions. The US ceased to make an effort to explain its motives to the rest of the world, to play by the rules and push its agenda through the established international system - rather, it chose to act outside it. Its dialogue with the world reached a low point with Colin Powell's flawed powerpoint presentation,  through which in 2003 he failed to convince the UN Security Council that there is sufficient ground to attack Iraq. But the US went ahead and attacked Iraq nonetheless. In retrospect, it can be said that the 9/11 terror attacks, combined with a pre-existing ideological condition among the US leadership at the time, precipitated a course of events that saw America gradually digging itself into a hole, having fewer and fewer friends, scared to live up to its values and locked in the circular, self-reinforcing logic of the war on terror. With an incredible speed, America's soft power evaporated. The real US ceased to be an example and an inspiration to the free world. It also ceased to be the guarantor of the global order through the web of international institutions - on the contrary, it became a destabilizing factor on the world scene. Making the world a much worse place overall. To top it all, Bush jr's second mandate ended up in financial and economic disaster, with the years long recklessness of Wall Street (itself not foreign from the ideology that also guided the Bush Administration's neo-barbarian foreign policy) delivering an almost mortal blow to the international financial architecture and to the world economy.

And then, when many had given up on America, something close to a miracle happened in the real US.
A very peculiar presidential candidate entered the Democratic Party's primaries. Rather than trying, as the other candidates, to capitalize on the fear and resentment of Americans - fear of foreign terrorists, economic and social anxiety, growing resentment towards a world that was losing its meaning - he came up with a positive message of hope. He reminded people of the American dream, and held himself as proof that the dream was still alive. Rather than speaking in sound bites to excite people's atavistic instincts, he took the difficult path of trying to engage people's reasoning faculties and their better selves. He spoke of talking without preconditions to hostile regimes, which all the other candidates mocked as unforgivably naive and dangerous. He spoke of re-engaging with the world on a humbler, mutually respectful basis, while re-affirming America's principles. With a diverse background and a stunning intellectual capacity, he brought a superior - but often counter-intuitive - understanding of the complexities of today's world, and managed to convey it to bigger and bigger audiences. To the rest of the world, he signaled that America might be able to radically change its ways of late and again become a leader and an inspiration. And the world started to watch, and to listen.
But, hey, it was impossible for this guy to win. He did not control the party machinery and started with little money. He was way too young, a junior senator with barely a couple of years of experience on the national scene. To top it all, he was black, when all American presidents in history had been white; he was rumored to be a closet Muslim, at a time when for many an average American the words Islam and terrorism are almost synonymous; and his name was Barack Hussein Obama, awkwardly reminding simultaneously of America's two great nemesis in recent history - Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.

There is already a rich literature on the history-making campaign that brought Barack Obama to the White House. In retrospect it is always easy to find explanations for almost anything. That's how history is written. But not how history is lived. In absolute terms, some sort of miracle happened. Obama was clearly an exceptional candidate - but this is far from sufficient to explain how so many Americans managed to raise above their fears, to transcend their deep-rooted instincts, and make such a non-obvious choice. What happened is not primarily about Obama, it's about the diverse and proud American nation that once more overcame its limits and stood as a City upon a Hill to inspire the world.

So many hopes and aspirations have been put in him that Obama is bound to disappoint most of his supporters. Not few are already disappointed. The promised change is too slow, too timid, or even non-existent. The new president has stumbled more than once. He is facing growing opposition from the other camp, as well as from his own.
To be honest, as much as I admire him as a person, I don't expect Obama to be an exceptional president. I think God has put some limits to the amount of greatness that any human being can achieve, and Obama has already unveiled his greatness by winning the presidency against so many odds. He cannot do anything greater than that. On the contrary, being such a non-typical president through his mere presence, he is likely to play safe more often than not.

But, just as the idea of America is greater than the actual America, the "factor Obama" is greater than Obama himself, and is already changing the world. It impacts on many people at a very personal level, people whom the real Obama will never meet and never talk to.
For me, Obama means America's renewal. I had lost my ideal America, and almost lost my faith that I would ever recover it. Through him, I found it again.
My America.


  1. Insightful commentary. However I disagree with Obama playing it safe. Obama definitely plays to win his policy goals and playing it safe generally means not to reach them.