In his speech to the United Nations last week, President Obama really broke the presidential pattern. At a glance these annual turns before the General Assembly are all alike. The president stands alone, dwarfed by the absurdly outsized dais angled together from blue-green granite, while the extravagantly dressed audience sits through long stretches of stony silence. The speech itself is always grandiose. Even back in the 1990s, when the world appeared to be going swimmingly, relatively speaking, the president of the United States felt he had to inform the assembled nations about "the great challenges" that "still confront us."
It's a safe bet that great challenges will be confronting us, because even if they weren't, the world's political and diplomatic leaders would invent them to keep themselves busy. Boldly (always boldly) asserting the existence of such challenges lends an urgency that earns the president's speech a mention on the evening news, at least. And it makes the president appear indispensable--not only as the man who calls the world's attention to great challenges but also as the man who, with help from his attendants, will wrestle the challenges to the ground.
Or so it usually went, until last week. This time the new president, in his U.N. debut, tried something altogether different. He worked hard to present himself as just one of the guys--one more world leader yakking it up with all the other world leaders down at the bar at the World Leaders Club.
He began the speech conventionally enough, by proclaiming a bold challenge. "The time has come for the world to move in a new direction." What challenge could be bolder than moving the world in a direction? So far, so normal. But note the passive voice. There was no we moving the world, and certainly no I. The world would be moving itself.
"No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation," he said, by way of explaining this strange unmoved movement. "No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed." The bipolar world of the "long-gone Cold War," in which two powerful nations pushed or pulled the world this way or that, is no longer possible, he said. And then he went an unexpected step further: Even the unipolar world, in which one country assumes leadership by virtue of its wealth or moral standing, isn't going to work, either. The president himself would see to that, by relinquishing any claim to indispensability. He was introducing us to the no-polar world.
In the no-polar world, according to the president, everybody is doing everything all at once. "Persistent action," the president called it. "The future will be forged by deeds and not simply words." The deeds, however, will entail a great many words; on most occasions, words exclusively. There will be summits, conferences, negotiations, and consultations. And in this important work, "America intends to keep our end of the bargain," which isn't to say we'll be bossing anybody around.
Take, for instance, the issue of nuclear disarmament. Boldly the president pledged that the United States would "pursue a new agreement with Russia." We would "work with others" to enforce a treaty after we "move forward with ratification." We would "complete a Nuclear Posture Review." And we would "call upon countries to begin negotiations." Pursuing, reviewing, working with, moving forward, and calling upon--dirty work, but somebody has to do it. And when all this labor has ended, the president promised, he will "host a summit" that "will work to strengthen the institutions and initiatives that combat" nuclear proliferation. (The word "combat" was not meant to be an endorsement of violence.) The sentence from the speech that best expresses our new no-polar world was this one: "We will develop regional initiatives with multilateral participation, alongside bilateral negotiations."
We've been told that most presidents appear to the rest of the world to be too aggressive, especially if they're Republicans, and especially when they stand before the General Assembly on that silly dais, talking grandly. But at the U.N. last week the world got its first look at a passive-aggressive president. For now Obama's co-leaders like their new colleague. They rewarded his speech with applause on thirteen occasions. (In his speech to the General Assembly last year, our previous president, Mr. Aggressive-aggressive, wasn't interrupted by applause at all, not once.) Hugo Chávez of Venezuela said he'd been particularly moved by Obama's vision.
Yet there's a kink in the logic of the president's performance, and it will become hard to ignore. For his speech was a particularly grandiose refusal to be grandiose--a high-handed refusal to be high-handed. Who is he, after all, to declare a no-polar world? Only the leader of the most powerful nation in the world would have the nerve to announce to the world that from now on, by his decree, no nation will be more powerful than any other. The declaration subverts itself, cancels itself out, as he'll discover when he comes to reap the dividends of his new no-polar world.
"Those who used to chastise America for acting alone," the president insisted, "cannot now stand by and wait for America to solve the world's problems alone." It's only a matter of time before the other guys at the bar start to think: Oh really? Who are you to say we can't?
And what are you going to do about it?
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.