Freedom New Mexico
President Barack Obama’s speech Wednesday to a U.N. General Assembly packed with more than 100 heads of state was a strange combination of modesty and chutzpah, of a change in tone designed to persuade people that more substantive changes in policy had occurred.
Insofar as a more modest tone reflects an understanding of changing circumstances, this could be healthy. But the president’s understanding appears to be superficial at best.
The theme caught by most news stories was that President Obama was declaring a new era of multilateralism and asking leaders of other countries to join in solving the world’s problems.
“Those who used to chastise America for acting alone in the world cannot now stand by and wait for America to solve the world’s problems alone,” he said. “Now is the time for all of us to take our share of responsibility for a global response to global challenges.”
The president may have been reflecting a recent report from the widely respected London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, which argued that, after Iraq, Afghanistan, and the financial collapse, “the U.S. share of ‘global power,’ however measured, is in decline.”
Whether that is true or not, or whether the president believes it, he talked as if he were the right person to define what the problems are and to push, prod and bully the rest of the world into adopting his agenda for confronting them.
Thus he summoned other world leaders to help create a world free of nuclear weapons, to counter terrorism, to combat climate change, to create Israeli-Palestinian peace, to create more economic opportunity.
Two observations suggest themselves. The first is that the contrast with his predecessor in the Oval Office is nowhere near as sharp as Obama’s rhetoric would suggest. President George W. Bush and (more often) some of his aides sometimes talked as if acting unilaterally was the only way to go, expressing impatience with the U.N. and the sluggishness of friends and allies. In practice, however, President Bush acted multilaterally — through the U.N or after assembling a coalition of cooperating countries — at least as often as he moved unilaterally in international affairs.
Bush and Obama also agree it is the right and responsibility of the U.S. to fix all manner of perceived problems throughout the world, though they may prioritize problems differently and take slightly different actions.
The second observation is that Obama believes aggressive government action, whether by our government or other governments, is the key to solving various problems. There is no apparent consciousness that government action sometimes exacerbates rather than solves problems.
Economic opportunity is just one example. We think the best way to maximize economic opportunity is often for the government to get out of the way rather than to become more deeply involved in decisions. It is also more than possible that the most effective way to reduce the threat of terrorism to the U.S. is to pull back from countries that breed terrorists rather than trying to run them.
The president’s faith in government action, the more the better, is touching but more than a trifle naive. This may be a time when it is more prudent to tend our own garden (which is notably overgrown at the governmental level, which is choking out private-sector growth) than to increase international meddling and urge others to follow along.