In his address to the United Nations, President Barack Obama did his best impression of a high-school sophomore participating in his first Model U.N. meeting, retailing pious cliches he learned from his ponytailed social-studies teacher.
Even Woodrow Wilson might have blanched at the mushy-headed exhortations to world peace and collective action better suited to a college dorm-room bull session or a holiday-season Coca-Cola commercial.
"No nation can or should try to dominate another nation," Obama intoned. "No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed. No balance of power among nations will hold."
The mind reels. Whether they should or not, nations unquestionably can dominate other nations. And a stable world order needn't be egalitarian. The Roman Empire lasted 500 years, and the British Empire at its height lasted about a century. The balance of power created by the Congress of Vienna in the early 19th century, meanwhile, forged one of the most extraordinary periods of peace in world history.
But let's put facts aside (Obama does). The subtext of this gooey passage is that Obama is forswearing America's pre-eminence. Between America and everyone else, Obama the citizen of the world adopts a happy medium. It is in this sense only that he is a centrist.
"For those who question the character and cause of my nation," Obama said, "I ask you to look at the concrete actions we have taken in just nine months." In other words, he's the personal redeemer of a nation sunk in war crimes (we condoned torture), highhandedness (we ignored the U.N.) and hypocrisy (we promoted democracy selectively) prior to the ascension of his blessed administration.
He thinks his fulsomely anti-Bush multilateralism will pay high diplomatic dividends: "Those who used to chastise America for acting alone in the world cannot now stand by and wait for America to solve the world's problems alone." All together now: Yes, they can!
Obama's mistake is in believing "the interests of nations and peoples are shared." Not on this planet, not in this fallen world. Georgia has an interest in becoming a strong, independent nation; Russia has an interest in quashing it. China has an interest in dominating East Asia; Japan and other neighbors have an interest in containing it. Iran has an interest in gaining a nuclear weapon; Israel and the United States has an interest in stopping it.
On the latter, Obama was shockingly weak, if his weakness still retained the capacity to shock. He outlined quite specifically what the United States will do to reduce its own nuclear arsenal. As for Iran, if it moves ahead on its nuclear program, it "must be held accountable."
How? Obama can't say, because Moscow, Beijing and even Paris might not have gotten word about the "new era of engagement based on mutual interests and mutual respect." All of them are prone to make discouraging noises about serious sanctions against Iran.
Obama's version of American leadership mostly consists of a public diplomacy of self-flagellation and commitment to fashionable causes. He'll pursue global disarmament and fight global warming. Hollywood activist Laurie David, not Hillary Clinton, might be best suited to be his secretary of state. Obama hopes that all our self-effacing niceness will catalyze the world into ending its "bickering about outdated grievances."
But the world's geopolitical and ideological disputes aren't "bickering," and just because grievances are old doesn't mean they are any less real or deep-seated (in fact, it usually means the opposite). Obama's presidency does not constitute Year Zero in international affairs.
For evidence, look no further than the United Nations itself, that incoherent collection of sterling democracies and dismal dictatorships. At the end of his speech, Obama said the U.N. could be "a place where we indulge tyranny, or a source of moral authority." Immediately afterward, Moammar Gadhafi took the podium for a rambling, 90-minute address. Even a first-time Model U.N. student might have noted the incongruity.