The New Frontier
DENVER--Although the nomination of Joe Biden as the Democats' vice presidential candidate will dominate the headlines, yesterday was an evening of enlightened internationalism in Denver. A picture was painted of how America would reintroduce itself to the world if Barack Obama is elected in November. And the organizers made sure to leave no doubt that the Armed Forces were the center of attention. Three-star Army General Claudia Kennedy spoke, and so did Iraq war veteran Tammy Duckworth, a helicopter pilot turned activist after she lost both legs in Iraq. Evan Bayh and Jack Reed--two important members of the Senate Armed Services Committee--were also part of the foreign policy battalion. In a speech that made many in the party nervous before it was delivered, Bill Clinton drew an interesting connection between the historic nomination of a black candidate and the leadership gap in the world. He argued that rebuilding the American Dream also means providing global direction. It is a dream that has no national boundaries, and tests new frontiers by definition. This reflects the new global realities: U.S. foreign policy is no longer foreign and neither can it be neatly distinguished from domestic issues. (Interestingly, in the American 20th century, after putting a man on the moon, the U.S. ran out of frontiers and had to look for a different galaxy when in need for a"last frontier"--one that was successfully explored by a skilled diplomat and hobby archeologist, Jean-Luc Picard and the crew of Federation flagship Enterprise-D).
But the notion of overcoming frontiers within and without is especially interesting with regard to Obama's diverse personal background. In the 1920s, when the expansion toward the American West had ended and racial and ethnic tensions were on the rise, the American philosopher Horace Kallen made a fascinating observation: America"was a world all frontier," he wrote. When external frontiers fade, they can be rebuilt in the interior of a society--the colors of competing national flags are replaced by the color of skin. So, the presentation of Joe Biden as Mr. Foreign Policy was indeed a home run for the Obama campaign and it served to increase the national security credentials of his presidential ticket. Bill Clinton reaffirmed the point in unexpected clearness:"Barack Obama is ready to lead," he is"on the right side of history," his personal achievements"are proof of our continuing progress toward the more perfect union of our founders' dreams." On the other hand, Clinton told of how well the U.S. would work with international institutions and lead the fight against global warming, producing more partners and less adversaries. That's all good but sounds like a path back to the 1990s. An election campaign might not be the place to undertake the comprehensive revision of American foreign policy in the 21st century, but Clinton--not to mention Madeleine Albright, who had opened the evening--is still thinking in terms of American being the"indispensable nation" it was in the 20th century. That perspective might turn out to be misleading.
The world is not about what we like it to be, but the frightening convergence of the global crisis of American (and Western) legitimacy and the impact of the weakness of the American dollar and its reduced relevance for the global economy requires a more thorough reassessment than the promise to get back into multilateral mode. There are good reasons for enlightened internationalists to think about the rapid demise of American power after the end of the Cold War that was supposed to constitute an age of unipolarity but which turned out to be a historical millisecond and a neoconservative illusion. A new frontier is developing in unforeseen ways. America might have a time window of only one or two decades until other regions of the world gain much greater autonomy and establish their own institutions and rules--a world without the West. At a book party that same afternoon, former Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta suggested that it might be worthwhile for Democrats to look back to the time when America was"all frontier," the age of Progressivism, and the presidencies of Theodor Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. If Barack Obama wins and takes on the task that Bill Clinton designated for him to"not allow the world's problems to obscure its opportunities," he won't be able to do so by looking back at the 20th century, because there is no reset button for American leadership. Bill Clinton's sentence about the"people the world over [that] have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power" is a good point of departure for any new administration. But to make this happen, the American president will need to come up with a better idea than to return to more of the same 20th century multilateral strategies.
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