Bryan Mukandi
Bryan Mukandi

Is Obama creating a wilderness and calling it peace?

The historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus is credited with the quotation, “They make a wilderness, and call it peace”. Assuming that I’m not taking it out of context or using it incorrectly, that quotation often comes to mind when I think of US President Barack Obama’s foreign policy.

I really like Obama. I don’t think he has spent enough time in office for us to fairly define his domestic or foreign policy. I think he is better at his job than his predecessor, and by the end of his tenure, things will be better than at the beginning. That said, a brief look into his recent speech to the United Nations will reveal my concerns.

On the surface of things, it is hard to fault the American president. The broad vision for international relations that he has set out is admirable. The world really would be a better place if everyone took what he said to heart and worked towards that vision. But delve a little deeper into his remarks, and problems emerge.

For instance, Obama said:

Democracy cannot be imposed on any nation from the outside. Each society must search for its own path, and no path is perfect. Each country will pursue a path rooted in the culture of its people, and — in the past — America has too often been selective in its promotion of democracy. But that does not weaken our commitment, it only reinforces it. There are basic principles that are universal; there are certain truths which are self evident — and the United States of America will never waiver in our efforts to stand up for the right of people everywhere to determine their own destiny.

On the face of it, I agree. But then, if democracy cannot be imposed from the outside, what’s the story with Iraq? After the WMD argument fell through, I thought the new position was that America had invaded to get rid of a dictator and bring democracy? President Bush certainly pushed that view, and on several occasions Obama has echoed those sentiments. While we’re at it, wasn’t the justification for the continued sanctions against Cuba rooted in its undemocratic nature?

Not only has America been “selective in its promotion of democracy” in the past, it continues to be so at present. So why is the man most able to change that state of affairs speaking as though he is either unaware of them or is a powerless outsider, completely unrelated to the prevailing norms which contradict his stated ideals?

On top of that, I don’t see how anyone can say, “Each country will pursue a path rooted in the culture of its people” in one breath, and then, “There are basic principles that are universal,” in the next. Some principles might seem universal to a society, but how can you possibly determine that the same holds true for others? How can anyone assume that for those whose thinking stems from different cultural roots, the perceived universality of others holds true? How can you negate the right of the existence of thought that is opposed, perhaps even diametrically, to your own? On this matter, both Star Trek (The Next Generation, with Lean-Luc Picard) and Makau Mutua’s book, Human Rights: A Political and Cultural Critique, are extremely instructive.

No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation … The traditional division between nations of the south and north makes no sense in an interconnected world …

I wish that were true, I really do. But what about America in Afghanistan? If bombing out the last guys in power, installing your own, and standing by him in an openly fraudulent vote a little while after having castigated Iran for their dubious poll isn’t dominating another nation, what is? If what is often referred to as the “international community” is the North, if the only part of the South that gets a real hearing are the richest nations, and if still there is an attempt to deny the existence of traditional divisions, then surely … Surely the North/South division is obvious?

To cap off my point, Obama also said:

The United Nations was built by men and women like Roosevelt from every corner of the world — from Africa and Asia; from Europe to the Americas. These architects of international cooperation had an idealism that was anything but naïve — it was rooted in the hard-earned lessons of war, and the wisdom that nations could advance their interests by acting together instead of splitting apart.

Sort of. The UN Charter’s preamble was written by Jan Smuts, a man who, while comparatively moderate in his views, was a segregationist who was opposed to black South Africans being given the right to vote. The UN itself was founded at a time when in America, the fear was that returning black military personnel would forget their place in the social order of things. This was a good decade before the height of the civil-rights era. The international cooperation of the time excluded the natives of colonies which were still the property of Europe. The architects of international cooperation were really more like the architects of a members-only social club. Were that not the case, the UN today might advance the desires of the majority of its members as opposed to those of its wealthiest.

In exorcising history so that it carries the desired lessons, Obama and his speechwriters convey a beautiful message that is as rooted in reality as your average urban legend. That is where I struggle with this American president. For all that I like and admire about him — and there is plenty of that — I cannot trust the words of someone with such a selective reading of both history and current affairs.

I don’t know what he is making, but what Obama calls peace could be anything at all.