assimilation, education, geopolitics, global integration, globalization, international law, international norms, Islam, labor standards, Middle East, Muslims, Obama, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, radical Islam, reeducation, refugees, skills, sovereignty, TPP, Trade, trade enforcement, training, Trans-Pacific Partnership, UN, United Nations
National leaders’ speeches to each year’ UN General Assembly – even those by American presidents – are rarely more than meaningless boilerplate or cynical bloviating. But President Obama’s address to the organization yesterday – as with some of its predecessors – is worth examining in detail both because it was his last, and because Mr. Obama clearly views such occasions as opportunities to push U.S. and international public opinion in fundamentally new directions where they urgently need to head.
In yesterday’s case, the president saw his mission as justifying his belief that Americans in particular need to reject temptations to turn inward from the world’s troubles, and more completely embrace forces that inexorably are tightening international integration economically and even in term of national security.
To be fair to Mr. Obama, he sought to offer “broad strokes those areas where I believe we must do better together” rather than “a detailed policy blueprint.” But even given this caveat, what’s most striking is how many of the big, tough questions he (eloquently) dodges.
Here’s the president’s main premise and conclusion:
“…I believe that at this moment we all face a choice. We can choose to press forward with a better model of cooperation and integration. Or we can retreat into a world sharply divided, and ultimately in conflict, along age-old lines of nation and tribe and race and religion.
“I want to suggest to you today that we must go forward, and not backward. I believe that as imperfect as they are, the principles of open markets and accountable governance, of democracy and human rights and international law that we have forged remain the firmest foundation for human progress in this century.”
This passage makes clear that Mr. Obama doesn’t buy my thesis that the United States is geopolitically secure and economically self-sufficient enough in reality and potential to thrive however chaotic the rest of the world. Nor does he believe the converse – that the security and prosperity the nation has enjoyed throughout its history has first and foremost stemmed from its own location, and from its ability to capitalize on its inherent advantages and strengths, not from cooperating or integrating with the rest of the world.
The president’s contention that “the world is too small for us to simply be able to build a wall and prevent it from affecting our own societies” rings true for most countries – even assuming that he doesn’t really think that this stark choice is the only alternative to complete openness to global developments and commerce and populations and authority, however promising or threatening. But he seems oblivious to America’s “exceptionalism” geopolitically and economically.
Even if I’m wrong, however, and even accepting Mr. Obama’s “broad strokes” objectives, this lengthy presidential address gives national leaders and their citizens almost no useful insights on how countries can achieve his goals. Here are just two examples:
The president recognizes the need to make the global economy “work better for all people and not just for those at the top.” But given the trade deals he himself has sought, how can worker rights be strengthened “so they can organize into independent unions and earn a living wage”? The president insisted again that his Pacific Rim trade deal points the way. But as I’ve noted, the immense scale of factory complexes even in smallish third world countries like Vietnam makes the necessary outside monitoring and enforcement impossible.
Similarly, no one can argue with Mr. Obama’s recommendation to invest “in our people — their skills, their education, their capacity to take an idea and turn it into a business.” But as I documented more than a decade ago in my The Race to the Bottom, governments the world over, including in the very low-wage developing world, recognize the importance of improving their populations’ skill and education levels. In addition, multinational corporations can make workers productive even in these very low-income countries – and continue paying them peanuts compared with wages in more developed countries. Why should anyone expect his recommendation to give workers in America a leg up?
It’s easy to sympathize with the president’s call “to open our hearts and do more to help refugees who are desperate for a home.” Who in principle is opposed to aiding “men and women and children who, through no fault of their own, have had to flee everything that they know, everything that they love,…”?
But as Mr. Obama indirectly admitted, many of these refugees come from a part of the world where “religion leads us to persecute those of another faith…[to] jail or beat people who are gay…[and to] prevent girls from going to school….” He also described the Middle East as a place where too often the “public space” is narrowed “to the mosque.”
It was encouraging to see him recognize the legitimacy – though perhaps not the necessity – of insisting “that refugees who come to our countries have to do more to adapt to the customs and conventions of the communities that are now providing them a home.” But is he blithely assuming success? And it was less encouraging to see him ignore the excruciatingly difficult challenge of adequately vetting migrants from war-torn and chaotic countries.
Finally, on the political side of integration, the president seems to lack the courage of his convictions. For despite his high regard for international law, and support for America “giving up some freedom of action” and “binding ourselves to international rules,” he also specified that these were long-term objectives – presumably with little relevance in the here and now. Indeed, Mr. Obama also argued that, even way down the road, the United States wouldn’t be “giving up our ability to protect ourselves or pursue our core interests….”
So it sounds like he’d relegate even future international law-obeying to situations that really don’t matter. Which is fine. But how that gets us to a more secure world is anyone’s guess.
It’s true that Mr. Obama will be leaving office soon, and that his thoughts no longer matter critically. But at the same time, American leaders have been speaking in these lofty globalist terms for decades. If the president is indeed right about global integration and the future, what a shame that he didn’t make more progress in bringing these ideas down to earth.