The most important paragraph of President Barack Obama’s speech announces a repeal of all prior guidelines and principles for U.S. foreign policy and a rejection of the basic rules of diplomacy as they have been practiced for centuries. It reveals the fundamental philosophical outlook of the president of the United States.
Of everything Obama has ever said, these 82 words for me are the scariest. One has to go back to first principles to explain to the U.S. government (and to many in Europe) how the real world works.
This should be the lead to all coverage of the speech. First, let’s present the paragraph in question:
“In an era when our destiny is shared, power is no longer a zero-sum game. No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation. No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed. No balance of power among nations will hold. The traditional division between nations of the south and north makes no sense in an interconnected world. Nor do alignments of nations rooted in the cleavages of a long gone Cold War.”
Let’s examine this paragraph:
It is true that all the people in the world face certain common problems like disease, poverty, environmental problems, the need to provide sufficient housing and jobs, crime, and the list goes on.
But this is not some twenty-first century revelation. It has always been true, even going back to the time of the Pharaohs and the Sumerians.
Philosophers and the creators of some—but not all—religions have argued that as a result all people should be kind to each other, help each other, work together, etc. Nation should not lift up sword against nation, neither should they war any more.
Yeah, but they still do.
Here’s where politics and international relations come in. Resources, development, wealth, and strength are not evenly spread. There are always people who have argued that power is a zero-sum game. I can take from you more easily than I can work and equal your success.
And if I believe that the only reason you “have” is that you stole from me, then power will certainly be a zero-sum game. This is why, for example, the Arab-Israeli conflict doesn’t come to an end. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin makes clear that he thinks his country's rightful sphere of influence has been stolen by the United States. The rulers of Bolivia, Cuba, and Venezuela say that the United States has stolen their country's wealth.
A second element that makes power a zero-sum game is the fact that different people have conflicting ideas. If there’s a group—say radical Islamists—who believe they are following the instructions of the deity and must put their worldview into rule than power for them is a zero-sum game. Either a country is ruled by Islamic law or it isn't.
Any leader who doesn’t realize that power is at least in large part a zero-sum game is like a man who drives his luxury car into the toughest part of town and with a visible flourish leaves it unlocked.
Indeed, Obama's speech was made at the UN, an institution that’s living proof that these ideas don’t work. It is corrupt and increasingly ruled by radicals who attack democracy and trash truth. The high founding ideals for which the UN was founded have been trampled by the very realities that Obama says don’t—or no longer—exist.
No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation, says the president. Well there are a lot of nations who don’t think that way. So what are you going to do about it? Utopian visions can work only if almost everyone believes them. Or they're nice if you don’t take them too seriously. If a nation acts otherwise you have two choices: stand by and do nothing or defeat them in some way that makes them stop trying to do so.
Note, however, that Obama doesn’t say this is the way the world should be—which is understandable as an idealistic goal—he says that this is the way the world actually is—which is a prescription for disaster.
No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed, says the president. Well, if he means that you shouldn’t try to dominate others that is one thing, but if he means that you shouldn’t try to exercise power which at times forces others to do your will than you are acting in a way that ensures that a group of people is elevated. The only thing you are accomplishing, however, is to make it certain that the group on top won’t include yourself.
And there is another implication here: a renunciation of American leadership in the world, the denial that the United States has a special role to play, has values or ideas or institutions that should be spread to countries that don’t possess them. If everyone is equal, there are no leaders.
But if you don’t lead, how do you achieve your goals: goals that others don’t necessarily share, despite Obama’s apparent failure to realize this. How do you enforce stopping others from dominating, taking, and conquering?
Now there is a positive side to this position. Obama says: you cannot expect the United States to solve all your problems and you cannot blame the United States for the failure to solve them. If this were coupled with a reasonable leadership stance this would make sense and Obama's credibility in this direction would help a bit.
Still, if countries don't believe the United States can do enough to help them they will seek friends elsewhere or appease America's enemies. And of course no matter what Obama does or says lots of groups, peoples, and countries will blame America for problems. Why? Because it is in their interests and many view the United States as an enemy.
He adds: No balance of power among nations will hold. This is absurd. What does it mean? That you cannot have a coalition of forces—say the West and its allies—that can stop another group from doing whatever it wants? Where is the alternative? That you must either reconcile your enemies or give them what they demand?
Of course, a balance of power can hold. And let’s remember the purpose of balances of power: to stop aggressors without going to war. No balance of power, the result has to be settled by surrender or fighting.
The traditional division between nations of the south and north makes no sense in an interconnected world. If by this Obama says that the poor should not be in conflict with the rich, it sounds like the usual fare from Western leaders. But in context is he saying that the developed world should give away its wealth to the Third World? And remember this statement comes from a man who favors environmental policies that if adopted would destroy Third World development efforts. No polluting power plants, mass ownership of automobiles, and smelly factories for them!
Nor do alignments of nations rooted in the cleavages of a long gone Cold War. If that means that the West should not look on Russia as an enemy (China was already part of the Western coalition in a sense by the late 1970s), that’s fine. But does this imply that democratic states should not see a kinship as against dictatorships? That liberty and freedom should not unite those against others whose ideas are those of tyranny and oppression?
Again, the point to remember is that Obama did not say that this is the way the world ought to be but that the world actually is like this. To say that one day the lion will lay down with the lamb is admirable. To say that it’s happening right now is a recipe for lamp chops.
What Obama has done in this paragraph is to reject reality and to put a gigantic “kick me” sign on the United States and its allies.
In a sense, it is the extension of multiculturalism to diplomacy. There's no good nor bad. Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan were just expressing their cultural norms. Who can say that the United States is better than Sudan, a country by the way which is chairing the largest bloc in the UN, or Libya, one of whose officials is charing the General Assembly.
Anyone would think he has absolutely no experience in international affairs!
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books: