To my surprise, I found myself feeling quite uncomfortable during certain sections of the Obama’s Nobel speech. It included the kind of soaring rhetoric I generally have a weakness for, but, this time around, that was precisely the problem. Maybe it was a great speech for Americans and perhaps it was a greater speech for American progressives, as Jim Arkedis' post on Progressive Fix suggests.
But how we see ourselves is not how others see us. When react we positively to a speech like this, we are speaking from the distinct perspective of Americans, but this was a speech addressed to the world, to those have been on the receiving end of U.S. policies.
When an American president speaks to an international audience and proclaims us a force for good, others are more likely to either shrug or, worse, to have experiences so divergent from this particular characterization that the comment doesn’t even begin to register. I may agree that the U.S. is a force for good, but just because I want it to be so doesn’t mean that it has been and, even less, that others will believe it for themselves.
Take for example this part of the speech:
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.
In a recent article, I wrote the following in regards to Arab perceptions of us and I think it’s relevant here:
Too many Arabs and Muslims hold the inverse of America’s opinion of itself: It is not a force for good, or even a burdened, yet flawed, protector of the international system, but rather an actor that has worked, in remarkably consistent fashion, to suppress and subjugate the people of the region.
Are Arabs and Muslims – or to a lesser extent Latin Americans and Europeans – justified in thinking this? It doesn’t matter. This is what they think. For them, that is the reality. So when Obama says something like “no matter how callously defined, neither America’s interests – nor the world’s – are served by the denial of human aspirations,” I like it and I want to hear more of it. It actually reminds me of Bush’s early 2005 speeches, and I mean that as a compliment, because they were great speeches (at least in written form) that promised a move away from our longstanding policy of unquestioning support for Arab dictators.
But Bush’s rhetoric introduced a cognitive dissonance that became so blatant that the whole edifice crumbled. I'm all for soaring rhetoric on human rights and democracy, and fashioning a more just international system, but only if we’re willing to back it up with real policy changes on the ground. And clearly we're not. There were quite a few lines in Obama's Nobel speech about standing by those who fight for freedom, and the importance of human rights, but Obama's Mid-east policy (after the almost pitch-perfect Cairo speech) has downgraded democracy on the list of priorities - and as others have argued, this de-prioritization of democracy has extended to other regions. For me, in listening to the Nobel speech, the dissonance was similarly striking and I imagine a lot of non-Americans were reading certain parts of the speech and wondering if the America Obama was speaking about bore any resemblance to the reality as they - not we - understand it.