Universal Nation

By Laughland, John | The American Conservative, September 2009 | Go to article overview

Universal Nation


Laughland, John, The American Conservative


Barack Obama sees a world without borders a vision Islam shares.

IF CONFIRMATION were needed that Barack Obama's foreign policy will retain the same philosophical assumptions that underpinned George W. Bush's, it came quickly enough in the new presidency. Speaking to an economics college in Moscow on July 7, the new president said that the U.S. was distinguished by "a commitment to certain universal values." He repeated the phrase twice more in the speech, then used it a day later with respect to the crisis in Honduras.

Obama had told the Russians that he wanted to press the "reset" button on the American relationship with Moscow. Perhaps his listeners did not expect him to use the term so literally: when you reboot a computer, it starts over exactly as before.

He did indeed sound like Bush who, on numerous occasions - perhaps most forcefully in the notorious National Security Strategy of September 2002 also avowed that the U.S. stood for universal, not American, values: "The United States must defend liberty and justice, because these principles are right and true for all people everywhere."

Obama said almost identical things in his address to the Muslim world in Cairo the previous month. Indeed the two speeches, Moscow and Cairo, both given to students, followed the same template: first deferential praise for the great history and culture of the nation or religion being addressed (medieval Muslim learning, Russian novels); then references to the past and present divisions between them and America (Islamic terrorism, the Cold War and its legacy); and finally a conclusion about shared challenges, hopes for peace and cooperation, and above all sentiments about a "common humanity." Obama used this very phrase in his televised address to Iran in March.

It may be unremarkable to hear a political leader invoking universal values or speaking hopefully about the future. But the tripartite structure of these speeches - which recalls the old Hegelian pattern of thesis, antithesis, synthesis - indicates a deeper philosophical assumption that is far more important than cheap emoting about the young. This Gnostic triad has wielded huge power over the political imagination for centuries, not least because it offers easy hope for a better world to come, inspiring Marxism and liberalism alike. All these unspoken assumptions came glaringly to the fore in yet another indication of Bush-Obama continuity: the reactions in both politics and the media to the unrest in Iran following the disputed presidential election in that country.

For a few days in June, there played out on our television screens exactly the same fairy-tale that had been so successfully peddled in Ukraine at the height of George W. Bush's presidency . What was obviously a battle between two powerful members of the political establishment (in Ukraine, between an incumbent prime minister and a former one; in Iran, between an incumbent president and a former prime minister) was elevated to a Manichean struggle between the forces of good and evil, progress and reaction, hi our TV depictions, the huge demonstrations in favor of the "bad" candidate were never portrayed as "the people," only those in favor of the "good'One. The fact that, in both Iran and Ukraine, the "good" candidate had himself been powerful in the very regime his supporters were allegedly contesting was also overlooked.

The important parallels did not, however, lie in this use of identical political technologies, although we should not forget that for decades coups and revolutions have deployed them with remarkable monotony. They lie instead in the extraordinary enthusiasm with which people in the West greeted the events in Iran. Thomas Mann once wrote that support for Nazism could be explained by an outbreak of the collective sentiment, "We don't want reality, give us a fairy tale instead." This is the key to understanding the West's love of revolutions, too.

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