Could Obama's Internationalism Cost Him Support at Home?

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Mr. Roberts is an assistant professor of history at Western Illinois University, and the author of the forthcoming Distant Revolutions: 1848 and the Challenge to American Exceptionalism (2009).

President-elect Barack Obama will take office during the bicentennial of the birth of Abraham Lincoln.  Pundits have noted many similarities between the two presidents.   Obama has cited Lincoln as his leadership example, invoking Lincoln’s words, “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” to emphasize his commitment to bridge our racial division.  But Lincoln’s most important impact on Obama will be his determination to make the United States a global example of democracy and to shape U.S. policy to reflect international needs.  While this certainly will enhance America’s standing in the world, this Lincoln legacy will also disrupt Obama’s effort to create domestic unity.

The Obama team’s global outlook resembles that of the organizers of the Republican Party in the 1850s.  Republicans opposed slavery in part because it isolated the United States from the rest of the Atlantic world, and prevented the country from becoming a liberal global example.  Lincoln’s secretary of state William Seward supported antislavery because the movement would put America on the crest of “the tide of social progress.”   The German immigrant Carl Schurz joined the Republican Party because he wanted America to “join the world of the nineteenth century.” 

Lincoln said he hated slavery “because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world–enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites.”  In 1855 he joked he might move to Russia, where at least there was “no pretence of loving liberty.”  But galling to Republicans, even Russia emancipated its serfs before Lincoln could emancipate the slaves.

Republicans opposed attempts by the Democratic Party to acquire Cuba for slavery’s expansion.  They wanted America to lead an emerging antislavery community of nations, rather than grow more isolated as a rogue empire. 

Likewise the Obama movement has pledged to reverse America’s image overseas, after the negative impact of the war in Iraq, inhumane treatment of prisoners, and uncooperativeness in addressing climate change and with the United Nations.  For Obama, American global standing has eroded “because people think that the United States wants to dictate across the world instead of cooperate across the world.”  Secretary of state nominee Hillary Clinton has pledged to “renew America’s standing in the world” and to seek “common cause” with foreigners because “America cannot solve crises without the world, and the world cannot solve them without America.”  Roots of international institutions that Obama's team supports–the U.N., the Geneva Accords, the Kyoto Protocol–were planted in Lincoln’s day.  Lincoln influences Obama because he moved America towards the global community.

Americans struggle, however, with whether global leadership is worth putting the country at the service of the world and subjecting us to the same rules that govern others.  Tension runs through our history over whether we are best served by listening to others.  Cooperation conflicts with exceptionalism.

On the eve of the Civil War Lincoln was urged to acquiesce to slavery’s expansion.  Everyone knew that the Republicans’ antislavery plank had virtually provoked the impending secession of the South.  But Lincoln refused to back away from his campaign promises.  Lincoln opposed slavery on principle because he believed America had a global obligation as “the last best hope of earth.”  He said the Civil War was waged for “the whole family of man.”  The Union victory indeed resonated abroad, inspiring expansion of voting rights in Britain and emancipation of slaves in Brazil.  In the end Lincoln’s policy was vindicated, although his internationalism helped fracture the country.

Obama shares Lincoln’s understanding that American exemplarism is possible only through the country’s abidance of international norms.  In the campaign Obama emphasized, “The security of the American people is inextricably linked to the security of all people.”  He has indicated support for an independent U.N. war crimes commission, and appears poised to reverse the Bush policy on U.S. funding for international family planning.  He says the United States should exemplify a global reduction of nuclear weapons, and has advocated closer American consultation with NATO allies over deployment of a missile defense system because it has “major implications for all of them.”   He is likely to consider nominating for the U.S. Supreme Court individuals who support judicial transnationalism, a doctrine that weighs the mutual interests of all nations in an ordered international system.

In November, however, Obama gained crucial electoral support among churchgoers, especially Catholics, and white men, groups that historically associate their conservative values with American exceptionalism.  If Obama’s presidency follows Lincoln’s example, his principled internationalist policy will precipitate division at home at the same time it enhances America’s credibility overseas.

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Larry N Stout - 1/28/2009

Let us note that the Russians have put on hold the missile deployment that was reaction to a very aggressive US/NATO foreign policy. I think non-philistines and anti-oligarchs can agree that this is progress for Europe, the USA, and that semi-European power, Russia. President Obama's relative paucity of pesonal power (as presidents go) is evidenced by his beforehand- negotiated appointments to the offices of Chief of Staff and Secretary of State (each of whom is the antithesis of diplomacy); however, it is already evident that many nations are investing political capital in President Obama, and mostly, I think, in a spirit of mutual accommodation, which is much to be preferred to a restart of Cold War in tandem with an unmanageable counterinsurgency in Iraq and an unwinnable hot war in Afghanistan (and Pakistan) -- both of which conflicts have already bankrupted America, fiscally and morally.

Larry N Stout - 1/26/2009

"Exceptionalism" at the lower levels of society is jingoism and chauvinism; it is rooted, in the USA as elsewhere, in the self-aggrandizement of smug, grossly ignorant philistines; the latter make up at least half of the American population. At higher levels, "exceptionalism" is synonymous with power-madness, greed, and monopoly.