Washington Diarist: Common Grounded

by Leon Wieseltier | October 27, 2009

The notion of a world society is nothing new to Americans. It dominated the rhetoric of World War II, of the founding of the United Nations, of much of the cold war. It is now a received idea, and its impress may be measured by the success with which advocates have found audiences for issues defined in international terms: the world environmental problem; the world population problem; the world food problem." Those words, platitudes now, were written presciently in 1975, and continued: "Much of this internationalist rhetoric is based on things real enough. There is a world ecology; there is a world economy; and some measures important to individual countries can only be obtained through international accord. Thus the concept of interdependence has become perhaps the main element of the new consciousness of a world society." Daniel Patrick Moynihan made those observations long before the rage for globalization and the shrinking world. He wished to call into question the prestige of international consensus. What mattered for him, heretically, was the substance of that consensus. After all, history is littered with unanimous falsehoods, and with their results. Moynihan transposed the classical anxiety about the tyranny of the majority to the realm of international affairs, and contended that there will be circumstances when American ideas and American interests require of us a strategic concept that he called "the United States in opposition." I cannot imagine a strategic concept more contrary to the thinking of Barack Obama, who regards "the United States in opposition" as the problem that he was anointed to solve.

Since conservatives are once again enjoying that old cataclysmic feeling, it is important to point out that the minoritarian dignity espoused by Moynihan is not to be confused with the contemptuous diffidence practiced by Bush and Cheney. They believe that a wilderness makes a prophet. But there is a world ecology; there is a world economy; and some measures important to individual countries can only be obtained through international accord. The hour of conservative self-examination has passed. The right is now securely swaddled in its certainty that there are no lessons it need learn from the Republican defeat or the Democratic victory. But Bush is not around anymore, even if his mess still is. And if, for Bush, American isolation in the world was an honor, American isolation in the world is, for Obama, a disgrace; and this, too, is not acceptable. Obama’s exquisite internationalism is also a kind of conformism. Everybody regards their world as the world: the United States under Bush was not wanting in allies, and Obama, too, has his preferred company for America. People admire Obama, at home and abroad, because his America is like their America; which is to say, they admire Obama because they admire themselves. The beautiful souls gave him a Nobel Prize for being a beautiful soul. We will soon discover that the popularity of an American president is a fact of minor strategic consequence. Anti-Americanism around the world is deep and tough and various. Most of it will not be dispelled by a black face and a Muslim name and a progressive smile. Multiculturalism is not a foreign policy. And enmity is the regular fate of states, and of superpowers, and of democracies.

Obama believes above all in common ground. The search for it is his most characteristic method in politics and in government. His diplomacy consists in underestimating differences and overestimating similarities. In Cairo, and at the United Nations, he argued that we must not be "defined by our differences." Actually, definition is the very work of difference; but I do not wish to be clever. For Obama, difference is the source of conflict. "So long as our relationship is defined by our differences," he said in Cairo, "we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace." This notion of the essential bellicosity of difference is odd in someone who exalts diversity. It has led Obama to some of the most amateurish formulations in modern American diplomacy. "No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation." "No balance of power among nations will hold." Hope should be more intelligent than that. Obama has succumbed to one of the great fantasies of our time, which is that we have millenially broken the grip of zero-sum logic upon human affairs: "In an era when our destiny is shared, power is no longer a zero-sum game." In his search for similarity among nations, he often cites the slogan of "an interconnected world"; but an interconnected world is not a homogeneous, or a harmonious, world. Common problems do not entail common perspectives.

"Is there some basis external to oneself," Howard Thurman once asked, "for the hopes and dreams of harmonious relations between men of whatever kind, state, or condition?" Obama is rehabilitating the old "family of man" analysis of the world. His level of generality--his planetariness--is fine only for Sunday morning. For history is made selectively, locally, in the particular. We have shared traits, even significant ones, with all people, with all life. The question is, what is the commonality that counts for us, and when, and why. We always choose some commonalities over others. We have common ground with the Iranian regime, or so Obama insists, in our desire to avert a nuclear catastrophe. And we have common ground with the Iranian resistance, in our desire to promote liberty. In his policy toward Iran, Obama has so far honored one commonality and dishonored the other. His "engagement" with the illegitimate theo-fascist rulers in Iran, even as their show trials proceed, represents a decision to scant ostentatious differences in favor of dubious similarities. (The demotion of human rights by the common ground presidency is absolutely incomprehensible. The common ground is not always the high ground.) When it is without end, moreover, the search for common ground is bad for bargaining. It informs the other side that what you most desire is the deal--that you will never acknowledge the finality of difference, and never be satisfied with the integrity of opposition. There is a reason that "uncompromising" is a term of approbation. As for the "decent respect to the opinions of mankind" in the Declaration of Independence, it is a call for courtesy, not a call for agreement. Where there is no common ground, the common ground man is useless. It is just him and his halo.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//article/environment-energy/common-grounded