Obama’s speech, in which he regretted America in the usual manner, but made weirdly unrealistic assertions about American power and behavior as well – also in the usual manner – may be best remembered for the passage on ceding national sovereignty.
But it’s important to follow the thread of Obama’s full argument, so I want to link together the segments of the speech that develop it. (The complete transcript can be found here.)
The UN speech’s argument
The argument unfolds below. It’s Obama tying these concepts together, remember, implying that one thing leads to or is responsible for another. I’ve annotated it with bracketed comments.
[A]round the globe we are seeing the same forces of global integration that have made us interdependent also expose deep fault lines in the existing international order.
We see it in the headlines every day. Around the world, refugees flow across borders in flight from brutal conflict. Financial disruptions continue to weigh upon our workers and entire communities. Across vast swaths of the Middle East, basic security, basic order has broken down. … [Yada yada] … Powerful nations contest the constraints placed on them by international law.
This is the paradox that defines our world today. A quarter century after the end of the Cold War, the world is by many measures less violent and more prosperous than ever before, and yet our societies are filled with uncertainty, and unease, and strife. Despite enormous progress, as people lose trust in institutions, governing becomes more difficult and tensions between nations become more quick to surface.
[The implication here is that the world is getting better because of transnational cooperation, but that that progress is being blocked by “powerful nations contesting the constraints placed on them by international law.” There is little if any evidence to support this thesis. But it’s very important to recognize that this is his thesis: Obama blames national sovereignty itself for making “our societies” uncertain, uneasy, and filled with strife.]
And so I believe that at this moment we all face a choice. We can choose to press forward with a better model of cooperation and integration. Or we can retreat into a world sharply divided, and ultimately in conflict, along age-old lines of nation and tribe and race and religion.
I want to suggest to you today that we must go forward, and not backward.
[Note that Obama lists nationhood as a divisive factor similar to “tribe, race, and religion.”]
Indeed, our international order has been so successful that we take it as a given that great powers no longer fight world wars; that the end of the Cold War lifted the shadow of nuclear Armageddon; that the battlefields of Europe have been replaced by peaceful union; that China and India remain on a path of remarkable growth. …
In order to move forward…we do have to acknowledge that the existing path to global integration requires a course correction. …
And as…real problems have been neglected [by globalists], alternative visions of the world have pressed forward both in the wealthiest countries and in the poorest: Religious fundamentalism; the politics of ethnicity, or tribe, or sect; aggressive nationalism; a crude populism — sometimes from the far left, but more often from the far right — which seeks to restore what they believe was a better, simpler age free of outside contamination.*
[Now Obama sets up a proposition that he uses as his fulcrum: that the U.S. is the superpower in a unipolar world, but that he – Obama – has sought to use that unique power for good, specifically in terms of promoting more international integration. This is the inflection point in the development of his argument. It’s extraordinarily important; don’t miss it.]
As President of the United States, I know that for most of human history, power has not been unipolar. The end of the Cold War may have led too many to forget this truth. I’ve noticed as President that at times, both America’s adversaries and some of our allies believe that all problems were either caused by Washington or could be solved by Washington — and perhaps too many in Washington believed that as well. (Laughter.) But I believe America has been a rare superpower in human history insofar as it has been willing to think beyond narrow self-interest; that while we’ve made our share of mistakes over these last 25 years — and I’ve acknowledged some — we have strived, sometimes at great sacrifice, to align better our actions with our ideals.
[This next paragraph is the one you’ve probably seen already.]
[W]e can only realize the promise of this institution’s [i.e., the UN’s] founding — to replace the ravages of war with cooperation — if powerful nations like my own accept constraints. Sometimes I’m criticized in my own country for professing a belief in international norms and multilateral institutions. But I am convinced that in the long run, giving up some freedom of action — not giving up our ability to protect ourselves or pursue our core interests, but binding ourselves to international rules over the long term — enhances our security. And I think that’s not just true for us.
[And this final proposition is key.]
If Russia continues to interfere in the affairs of its neighbors, it may be popular at home, it may fuel nationalist fervor for a time, but over time it is also going to diminish its stature and make its borders less secure. In the South China Sea, a peaceful resolution of disputes offered by law will mean far greater stability than the militarization of a few rocks and reefs.
This is Obama’s argument. National sovereignty is a bad influence on the same order as tribal, ethnic, and religious strife. It is interfering with the good done by international integration. The way to reduce social anxiety and strife is to accept more constraints on national sovereignty.
America, the unipolar superpower, should accept those constraints, says Obama. But don’t miss the rest of his argument. It comes in two points:
(1) Obama’s examples of sovereignty are misuses of it. He enumerates Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s lawless territorial seizures in the South China Sea, and subtly implies that these misuses of national power call sovereignty itself into question. This is obviously a one-sided and prejudicial approach.
(2) Obama lectures Russia and China that they too must follow the example of Obama’s America and accept constraints on their sovereignty.
Why we owe Obama a debt of gratitude
Get the sum total of those points in your mind. And now, with one more point, you can see why you have Obama to thank for the giant step the world has taken away from globalism on his watch.
Every bit of what Obama wants requires exactly what he says America is: a unipolar superpower. Having a unipolar world with a single superpower isn’t a sufficient condition for bringing about global government. But it is a necessary one.
We only have a United Nations because the power of America was so outsized compared to everyone else’s in 1945. The FDR administration was the principal architect of the United Nations. The UN was not someone else’s brainchild, nor has the United States fouled up the machinery of internationalism in the seven decades since the UN was created – through American sponsorship. Obama always speaks as if America has somehow been delinquent in the observance of international citizenship, when in fact, America is the reason that concept has meaningful existence today.
Wherever post-1945 international cooperation has actually produced a result, other than moving money around behind the scenes, the essential factor in the transaction was American power. This American power was political, moral, economic, and military. All of these dimensions of power were important.
It is impossible to enforce “international rules,” and induce most of the nations, most of the time, to make only good, positive uses of sovereignty, without having a benignly-disposed superpower.
And there is no way to get to global governance without a unipolar geopolitical landscape, capped by a single, generally trusted superpower.
For twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world was in the “unipolar, single superpower” condition.
But now, after seven-odd years of Obama, the world is no longer unipolar and there is no longer a single superpower.
The conditions do not exist today for nations to do what Obama demands: “accept constraints” on their sovereignty.
No one can now make Russia or China use sovereignty only in good ways. America has little ability to deter them with the threat of brute force. Obama’s assurances ring hollow, because we have lost the edge that once made the cost-benefit calculation unfavorable for disturbers of the peace. To undo anything done by Russia or China, we’d have to engage in a protracted, costly fight that we would probably tire of first.
More than that, however, Obama has ensured that America has lost unipolar super-ness in all the dimensions of national power: political, moral, economic, and military. Our power of moral suasion is declining by the hour, commensurate with the loss of our military edge relative to the global problems Obama goes around promising we will use force for. Moral power also declines with every riot in an American city, every unaddressed terror attack, and every bout of hysteria over exotic, post-modern social “problems.” (Most of the world doesn’t see gender-bathroom wars as a sign of overdue liberation or “justice”; most of the world just sees them as insane.)
By his own hand, Obama has destroyed the necessary condition for moving toward global governance. Hilariously – or perhaps tragically; we’ll see – he doesn’t realize that that’s what he has done. He keeps popping up touting American power and popularity that no longer exist. I think he really believes he still holds the scepter of that lost American power. I think that, in part, because Obama imagines he still has “American power” to apologize for and give away.
As a limited thinker who has never stretched his mind beyond “community organizing,” Obama doesn’t see that disorganizing America has put global government out of reach for now. There is no possibility of global government being ceded, or even beginning to form, around Russia, China, or anyone else. The world will fight them, by ones, two, and tens, if they try to assert such power, in a way the world never wanted to fight America until Obama took office.
The same can be said of attempts to establish an Islamic caliphate. Resisting such a project requires being willing to fight in conditions of local disorder. The loss of international order is quickly removing barriers to that willingness.
Europeans who would have been daunted by the prospect of bucking the policy of the EU or NATO 10 years ago are much less so today. Islamists like ISIS may take advantage of disorder, but the extent of the breakdown in transnational institutions – a breakdown from ineffectiveness and counterproductiveness – means that even Europeans will be more willing in the days ahead to organize locally and fight.
No form of global government can ride in bloodlessly, or by assent or acclaim, except on the train driven by a superpower like the pre-Obama United States of America. And there is no such superpower now. Obama’s vision is done for.
Mark it well. This is the end-state that the wholly destructive model of Alinskyism leads to. At the jumping-off spot, there is no train left to ride; there is only a train wreck. The vision may still exist, but there is simply no way to get there.
I know that most of my readers will leap to say, “But Americans never wanted to have our national power be the vehicle for ushering in global government!” And I agree. Neither Republican nor most Democratic voters ever imagined they were voting to have America fill that role.
But the point is that only a power like America’s could serve to bring about the goal Obama articulates. And now that power is gone. No replacement for it exists.
I’m not sure right now what the sum total of the tectonic disruption is, but I’ve written before about how profound and historic it is – encompassing the very concept of Westphalian state relations, for example, and setting the global order back to a condition devoid of hegemony not seen for as much as 600 years, and perhaps more.
The UN by itself is a powerless body, and if we don’t find out just how powerless in the next year, it will be by sheer luck (or, as some of us prefer, the grace of God). The UN is nothing without an overwhelmingly powerful United States. Neither are the “international rules” Obama is so fond of (in spite of his distaste for rules like those in the U.S. Constitution).
There will be things we don’t like about a powerless UN. But exposing its powerlessness is the price of averting global government. How long global government has been averted for will depend on how big the tectonic disruption of the Obama years has turned out to be.
Destroying the conditions for a natural progression to global government is not what Obama thought he was doing for the last seven years. Of that I’m certain. But it’s what he was doing.
I’ve written this before too (see the links above): the coming years will be a time of unprecedented opportunity. We can choose how America will be rebuilt. The world will have to choose how to reconstitute a framework of order – presumably as it always has before, by responding to a series of tests.
How we answer this opportunity will depend on whether we recognize it for what it is, or merely react in fear. But what is set before us this day is life and death – and we must choose life.
He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh; the Lord shall have them in derision.
Psalm 2:4 (KJV)
* Note that this is not the conventional definition of populism, which has recurred throughout history and has unvaryingly been associated with an idea of crusading for the common people against political or wealthy commercial elites. “Populism” has not traditionally been about isolationism or irredentism, although its adherents have sometimes largely overlapped those priorities. Obama is trying for a vague, impressionistic elision of ideas here, one that serves his political purpose but obfuscates reality.
The following definition of populism – as it has traditionally been understood – is as serviceable as any:
At its root, populism is a belief in the power of regular people, and in their right to have control over their government rather than a small group of political insiders or a wealthy elite. The word populism comes from the Latin word for “people,” populus.
Webster links populism more directly and narrowly to its political history in the United States. Run your own searches; the bottom line is that equating populism with “seeking to restore a better, simpler age free from outside contamination” is a mischaracterization of populism, per se. Obama is just making this part up, framing a trend he doesn’t like in prejudicial terms and slapping the buzzword of the moment on it.