America: The World’s Superhero?
In his September 10 speech outlining U.S. strategy against ISIL, President Obama made the case for America’s indispensable leadership in the world.
In his concluding line the president stated “our own safety, our own security, depends upon our willingness to do what it takes to defend this nation and uphold the values that we stand for.” This one line, tucked away at the end of the speech, signals a drastic turn in Mr. Obama’s foreign policy.
From Clark Kent to Superman
Mr. Obama’s previous doctrine is best described as pragmatic realism. He did not use military force to resolve a situation unless it was a direct threat to American interests. Mr. Obama struck a deal to remove chemical weapons from Syria, but showed he was not willing to put Americans in danger to do it, let alone protect the repressed population. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, as troublesome as it was for international community, did not pose a direct threat to the United States. The Arab Spring, as momentous as it was for the spread of freedom and democracy, garnered no more than American air support in Libya.
ISIL is a potential threat to U.S. citizens, so combating it is consistent with Mr. Obama’s previous doctrine. Now, however, the United States’ rescue of the Yazidis – a religious minority that Americans have never heard of – has marked a turning point in American foreign policy. The U.S. has shifted from a guardian of Americans to a guardian of humanity. Obama has made America the world’s superhero.
Cynics will say the president’s speech was a moral justification for action the U.S. would have taken anyway; one of those pleasant coincidences in U.S. foreign policy where idealism aligns with realism. But Mr. Obama’s speech indicated more than wartime rhetoric. His call for “broad American leadership” included a commitment to American values:
Our endless blessings bestow an enduring burden. But as Americans, we welcome our responsibility to lead. From Europe to Asia, from the far reaches of Africa to war-torn capitals of the Middle East, we stand for freedom, for justice, for dignity.
Throughout U.S. history, American foreign policy has been most effective when it has fought for its values abroad when threatened at home. Made fashionable by President Woodrow Wilson, defending the universality of U.S. values has been a trademark of American foreign policy. But this history is also littered with vacuous calls by U.S. presidents to stand up for freedom around the world. Few have actually made good on this promise. Those who did have had track records ranging from the victory of World War II and the Cold War to the Fall of Saigon and the Iraq War.
The Danger of Jokers
Promises of freedom also have a history of heartbreak and backlash from those who took the U.S. at its word and were then abandoned. When President George H.W. Bush urged the Kurds to rise up against Saddam Hussein after the first Gulf War, the United States stood by as they were gassed by Iraqi helicopters, allowing the dictatorship in Iraq to consolidate its power. In 1919, President Wilson sold out Chinese self-determination in Shandong for Japanese acceptance of the League of Nations, sparking the anti-western May 4th Movement and the ascendance of the Chinese Communist Party. Following classic comic book plot, America’s betrayal of its principles birthed its own future villains.
It is a noble but risky venture for America to commit itself to upholding broad values. When it succeeds, it not only wins a military victory, but also increases U.S. reputation and attractiveness across the world. This, in turn, makes the United States safer. But when it betrays its covenants with the world it compromises its reputation around the globe. It exposes itself to accusations of hypocrisy and callousness – the same accusations that are used to recruit disillusioned nationalists to fight for communism or religious fundamentalism.
The U.S. must be careful which values it promises to uphold and to whom. The world will hold America to them, and betrayal will ring stronger than apathy. This is not a cause for isolationism, but a reason for caution and deliberation in what commitments are made.
If Not U.S., then Who?
What values can and should America uphold? Is it Superman, who tackles any injustice single-handedly, no matter how large? Or will it be more like Captain America, acting as the jacked Boy Scout and rallying others to fight evil together? Or will it be like Batman, enacting vigilante justice? Which superhero does the United States have the capacity and will to be?
Will it really stand with those who fight for themselves, as President Obama promised? Come to their aid when they light the signal? These are the questions this column will explore over the course of the next few months.
The new role Mr. Obama will take has yet to be seen. But one thing is certain: no one else can answer the call. The United States remains the world’s sole superpower, and the only nation capable of even considering dauntless heroism. When the small and the helpless cry for help against oppressive tyrants, it is America who must respond. Like Uncle Ben said, with great power comes great responsibility.
It’s just a matter of which hood and cape Mr. Obama should don.
- Ian Manley