Ever since he entered the White House, President Obama has spoken often of his vision for America’s role in the world. His speech Wednesday at the West Point graduation was different. It firmly planted the idea that the United States is the global leader simply for its ability to persuade other nations to join it in solving global issues.
He calls this approach “empowering partners.” To be sure, the US will always act on its own against a direct threat to itself. But in tackling world problems, such as the Syrian war or the standoff in Ukraine, the US must act simply as the “hub of alliances,” as it has steadily done over the past century. This leader-as-coach role has made the US an exceptional nation, although sometimes Britain or France have led interventions in world trouble-spots. “If we don’t [do it], no one else will,” he said.
To put meat on the concept, he asked Congress to provide up to $5 billion for a “counterterrorism partnerships fund.” The money would be spent to aid countries at risk of becoming outposts for jihadists who might attack the US or its allies. The list of potential countries ranges from Pakistan to Nigeria.
He also hinted at reform of institutions designed by the US after World War II to keep and promote peace. These include the United Nations and World Bank. “Evolving these institutions to meet the demands of today must be a critical part of American leadership,” he said.
He did not say so, but Mr. Obama’s vision is based on an assumption that humanity has made rapid progress over the past 70 years on human rights, rule of law, equality, and freedom. With more nations adopting such ideals, the US leads more by persuasion than military action, by asserting right over might.
“Because of America’s efforts – through diplomacy and foreign assistance, as well as the sacrifices of our military – more people live under elected governments today than anytime in human history,” he said. Digital technology such as the Internet has empowered citizens and civil society. Opening markets and other advances have lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty.
Tyranny still exists – such as Russia taking Crimea – but Obama’s vision of leadership implies that global progress has elevated human nature to an advanced state. Such a promise has been proclaimed in the past only to be disapproved by major war.
But many scholars now claim humans are better educated, more interdependent, and less divided by kin, clan, tribe, or nationality. Or as Maya Angelou, the poet who passed away Wednesday, once wrote: “I note the obvious differences between each form and type, but we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”
In his 2011 book “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” Harvard academic Steven Pinker used data to show that killings and other violent acts have declined over the centuries because people have developed greater self-control, empathy, morality, and reason. A rise in intelligence brings about a rise in peace. Other scholars, such as the late Lawrence Kohlberg, have tracked an increase in the ability of humans toward higher states of moral reasoning.
Such trends cast doubts on the notion of humans as biochemical puppets, beholden to genes and neurons to define what is good in each individual.
Obama quoted President Kennedy about peace needing to be based upon “a gradual evolution in human institutions.” As more people and nations evolve toward shared ideals, the task of maintaining international order also becomes more of a shared one. The US, which was so instrumental as a military leader in the 20th century, can take on a new role in bringing nations and people closer.