Obama in Oslo: Power without Empire

by A. Jay Adler on December 11, 2009
Read More: , ,

I go and use a presidential juggling analogy in Obama Abroad: Liberal, Moderate, Careful, and my psychoanalytical interlocutor ShrinkWrapped decides to employ a fungo hit to test my own coordination. I’m still developing my response to Principia Liberalis Interruptus, and he takes a whack at the Obama post, putting a second ball in the air. I suppose he imagines it a matter of course that liberals have two left feet. And, no doubt, he’s quietly taking notes. But I’ll try to keep my eye on both balls.

Shrink claims in response to my praise of Obama’s international temperament that Obama is guilty of what Richard Landes at the Augean Stables has termed Cognitive Egocentrism, and then, further. Liberal Cognitive Egocentrism. I admire Landes, and I believe that with these terms and others he has accurately described a nexus of attitudes on the political left that are deeply wrongheaded and disabling. However, conservatives in general, Landes, and my jousting partner SW are mistaken in applying these concepts to Obama. The idea of this error was implicit in Obama Abroad. The conservative reaction to Obama – the projection upon him of every conservative, nativist, and chauvinist fear of the late twentieth century, and every generalization about liberalism – will provide material for years of study.  Much as many of ShrinkWrapped’s commenters have, over several rounds of debate so far, proven themselves unable to respond to me and my ideas, but instead acted out their own conservative disability to perceive a liberal outside their calcified, stereotypical conceptions of liberalism, so too, far more significantly, of course, are conservatives unable to see Barack Obama for what he is, individually, as a liberal.

British Empire

The essence of Liberal Cognitive Egocentrism is “The projection of good faith and fair-mindedness onto others, the assumption that ‘other’ shares the same human values….[and which] holds that all people are good, and if only we treat them right, they will respond well.”

This is, in truth, a very soft spot on the left. Just the other night I was passing by (I swear I was just passing) Larry King on CNN. Among his guests discussing Obama’s Afghan decision were everyone’s favorite financial expert who saw the crash coming like a speeding car from behind, Ben Stein, and, I swear again, magician Penn Jillette. Jillette was the nightmare of liberalism, fearing that the Afghan escalation would only produce more terrorists, the way the war in the Pacific only provoked the Japanese to anger and we lost – or was it that we made nice and they went away? I forget.

Conservatives think Obama is an eloquent Penn Jillette.

This misapplication of LCE to Obama is not only a categorical error; it is a distortion of his actions. He pursues a preliminary policy of diplomatic outreach to Iran (for reasons I limned in Obama Abroad) and he makes expansive, conciliatory speeches, say, in Cairo, and conservatives think this is the same thing, the same audience approached in the same manner with the same message. It is not. Obama’s acknowledgments of U.S. error, for instance, are not directed at the Iranian or North Korean regimes, at Russia or at China, nations that may be, by our lights, irrationally directed, or directed by natural historical interests that will not bend in our direction because we project ourselves in a warmer, more self-critical light. But with the waxing and waning of circumstance, other nations and people – what was once the Third World between the Western first and Communist second – have for decades often been alienated from what should be a natural sympathy, toward the U.S., because of errors the U.S. has, in fact, made, and in the way it has projected itself. The George W. Bush years were the apex of the crude political belief that genuine strength and readiness to both assert and defend national interest need be communicated in blunt, imperious declarations of unwavering disregard for the perspectives of other nations. A nation need win hearts and minds in times of peace, not only in war.


In contrast, here is Barack Obama from yesterday’s Nobel acceptance speech:

I know there’s nothing weak — nothing passive — nothing naïve — in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

I raise this point, I begin with this point because in many countries there is a deep ambivalence about military action today, no matter what the cause. And at times, this is joined by a reflexive suspicion of America, the world’s sole military superpower.

But the world must remember that it was not simply international institutions — not just treaties and declarations — that brought stability to a post-World War II world. Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms. The service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform has promoted peace and prosperity from Germany to Korea, and enabled democracy to take hold in places like the Balkans. We have borne this burden not because we seek to impose our will. We have done so out of enlightened self-interest — because we seek a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if others’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and prosperity.

Obama can speak profoundly, truthfully like this, and be well-received, because he has already acknowledged that a great America has been, of course, as is any nation, a flawed and fallible America. Such expressions, of readiness for war, of America’s distinction, can be accepted by others because they are not just one more arrogant assertion of prerogative and self-regard.

Roman Empire 395 CE

The Nobel speech has been praised by some conservatives, who have recognized a genuine statement of American seriousness of purpose for what it is. Others will remain unwavering in their determination to perceive Obama through a distorted lens that will invert the meaning of his language or separate the meaning from a true intent. How else compare the decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, and to continue an aggressive, irregular war against Al-Qaeda in Pakistan to Neville Chamberlain appeasing Hitler, as has been done?

I am not hopeful about Iran, in any respect. But common approaches to problems that conceive only predictable outcomes are enemies of the rare result. Had an Obama-like figure gone to China in the 1970s, Republicans then, like ex-Vice Presidents now, would have accused him of giving aid and comfort to the enemy. And for all Iran’s dark terrors, and its projections on the world scene, it bears no historical mention beside the like of Mao’s mass murderous China. Yet Nixon went, and as Obama remarked in Oslo, the results, far better than might have been, are there to be seen over more than three decades.

ShrinkWrapped says that “the perceptions of America under Barack Obama are of a nation trying to retreat into a more limited engagement with the world.” This perception, and that of some new American weakness, are perceptions mainly of American and some Anglo conservatives. In contrast again, here is Obama in Oslo:

More and more, we all confront difficult questions about how to prevent the slaughter of civilians by their own government, or to stop a civil war whose violence and suffering can engulf an entire region.

I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans, or in other places that have been scarred by war. Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later. That’s why all responsible nations must embrace the role that militaries with a clear mandate can play to keep the peace.


within America, there has long been a tension between those who describe themselves as realists or idealists — a tension that suggests a stark choice between the narrow pursuit of interests or an endless campaign to impose our values around the world.

I reject these choices…. No matter how callously defined, neither America’s interests — nor the world’s — are served by the denial of human aspirations.

This is not the president of a nation retreating “into more limited engagement with the world.” However, it is a president conceiving the engagement differently, no less forcefully, but more completely. Brute Cheneyesque bullying as the expression of an engaged America brings to mind number 23 of my Principia Liberalis:

A breadth of interests entails a breadth of power to protect them. A breadth of power generates its own interests. Even a benign power will be caught in this cycle of mutual reinforcement. Imperial behavior, conceived only as protection of interests, can expand innocently and then be justified, in the maintenance of an imperial nature, as a necessary protection of interests.


Because the U.S. is the sole superpower in the world, it acts to extend the reach of its power to maintain itself (power not being static) and to protect the interests that naturally attach to that power’s reach. As the interests expand, the superpower must engage more nations with the purpose of pursuing and maintaining those interests. Ironically, this makes the superpower a supplicant, always needing to negotiate with other nations over those nations’ natural interests and spheres of power, and far from the natural sphere of the superpower’s interests, because now the world has become its sphere. World security concerns become the superpower’s security concerns, and multiple nations, pursuing their own interests to some degree of variance with the interests of the superpower now become problematic concerns.

The current conservative formula is that any reconsideration of this cycle is a disengagement bespeaking weakness. In order to avoid this appearance – indeed, reality – of (relative) weakness, the cycle must be maintained perpetually. The United States, now that it is the sole superpower, must ensure that it remains the sole superpower. If it is not the conquering, occupying power of imperial epochs past, it must now be and remain the imperial power of enforceable influence wherever its interests and security are perceived to reside, and increasingly they reside everywhere.

Such, however, is part of the historic pattern in the decline of empires. Yet this is the imperative that serves as the basis for misconceiving and rejecting the Obama international vision. It offers a choice not between a weak America and a strong America willing and able to meet genuine security threats. It presents a choice between an imperial America, however internally democratic, attuned to the brute expression and imposition of its will across all reaches, and a strong America integrated, reasonably and with proper regard to its interests, within a slow-developing international order.



{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: