Obama a Citizen of the World

Obama a Citizen of the World

By Robert Robb - July 30, 2008

Barack Obama's speech in Berlin was a phenomenal event. For a U.S. presidential candidate to draw a crowd of over 200,000 in a foreign country to hear him speak is truly remarkable.

So, Europe likes Obama and Berliners loved his speech.

In the United States, however, the question is what does what Obama said in Berlin mean for us and for the direction of his leadership should he become president?

There were two significant points about the speech. The first is that it wasn't apologetic.

There is a strong consensus in Europe that the United States is too backward to wield the power and influence it has in the world. So, U.S. power and influence need to be constrained and directed by Europe.

Most American liberals tend to defer to the European judgment, at least implicitly. Obama didn't.

Obama anchored his speech in the Berlin airlift, when the exercise of American power prevented free Berlin from being swallowed up by the Soviet Union.

Rather than concede European criticism, Obama asserted that "just as American bases built in the last century still help to defend the security of this continent, so does our country still sacrifice greatly for freedom around the globe." And toward the end of his speech, he gave a rousing tribute to American pluralism - of which, as he acknowledged in his opening, he is a living emblem.

The left tends to blame President Bush for rising anti-American sentiment across the globe. And certainly much of the world has resented the actions and Texas swagger of this president and administration. However, rising anti-Americanism considerably predates Bush and Obama resisted the temptation to lay the blame for trans-Atlantic stresses on him. The only swipe was raising the question of whether "we," a pronoun of ambiguous antecedent in this section of Obama's speech, "will reject torture and stand for the rule of law?"

However, Obama seemed to go out of his way to say that trans-Atlantic issues would not be resolved simply by a change of leadership in Washington.

Obama is an eloquent speaker and a compelling persona. As president, he could be a powerful voice for and defender of the American story and its values and interests. He seems inclined to be so.

The second point that stands out is the way Obama introduced himself not only as a "citizen" of the United States, but also of the world.

Now, hyperbole is a standard tool of politicians and allowances have to be made for imprecision and exaggeration in their rhetoric. Nevertheless, the speech left the sense that Obama was not speaking merely metaphorically when he described himself as a "citizen" of the world.

What it means to be a citizen of a country is pretty clear. You are a member of that country's polity with the same rights and obligations as your fellow citizens. Your membership as a citizen of a particular country is a measure of self-identification and distinguishes you from citizens of other countries.

But what does it mean to be a "citizen" of the world?

There are some problems, such as global warming, that can only be solved through coordinated global action.

There are many problems, such as containing terrorism, that benefit enormously from significant coordination and interaction among nation-states.

However, Obama's view of "global citizenship," another term he used in the speech, seems to extend considerably beyond the tactical need for coordinated action among nation-states on matters of mutual interest.

Instead, he seems to see trans-national obligations on such things as income distribution, education, poverty, disease and violence.

What this means in practical terms is unclear. This is an undeveloped part of Obama's foreign policy perspective.

Nevertheless, it is a powerful impulse within him, finding expression frequently in sentiment if not yet in policy when discussing America's role in the world.

John McCain sees the world in terms of traditional power politics interactions between nation-states. The goal of American foreign policy, in his view, should be to advance American interests and increase American power and influence. Obama seems to see a larger calling and obligation in international affairs.

Although this is all a bit nebulous, I think it has the potential to be a meaningful backdrop to the presidential election. Obama seems to see himself as a citizen of the world in ways that many Americans do not.

Robert Robb is a columnist for the Arizona Republic and a RealClearPolitics contributor. Reach him at

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