Obama in Strasbourg: Crossroads of social time; sovereignty and boundedness April 9, 2010

Posted on March 9, 2010


The American president gave a dazzling array of speeches during the week that Buddhists observed the birthday of Gautama, Christians observed the resurrection of their messiah, Jews celebrated liberation from slavery, and people throughout the world welcomed the change of seasons.

On April 2, 2009, President Obama addressed leaders of the world’s largest economies at a meeting in London. On April 4, he spoke to signatories of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and took questions from the press. In Prague, on April 5, hours after North Korea tested a missile that could deliver nuclear weapons to Alaska, he promised to work for nuclear disarmament. On Monday April 6, he visited Turkey for the first time as the leader of the free world, and on April 7, he completed his trip with an unannounced stop in Baghdad to explain to troops why they are still needed.

The speech at the G-20 Summit encouraged the richest nations to further stimulate their economies, as the US has been trying to do. The second speech, in Strasbourg, urged NATO members to help eradicate al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and in the lawless border regions of Pakistan. The speech in Prague pledged that the US, Russia and other Great Powers would disarm to legitimize their request to other nations to do so. In the speech in Turkey, President Obama assured the EU’s only predominantly Muslim member that the west is not at war with the youngest monotheistic religion, and the joyously received speech in Iraq assured the men and women of the military that their government would support them overseas, and after they returned to the United States.

There were overlapping themes to these various audiences: economic infusions and new regulations, shared prosperity and security, and a world in which there is nowhere to hide from recession, radiation or communications. It is my assertion, however, that the “Town Hall” talk in Strasbourg, France on April 3, 2009 illuminated an interlocking group of themes that reveal Obama’s leadership and his vision for the nation-state and world governance.

I recently completed my doctoral dissertation, which distilled a set of functions that writers have expected nation-states to perform. My research tallied perceptions—both negative and positive fulfillment—of those functions in 555 letters and editorials in three newspapers from between 1946 and 2008. The findings were that, although writers consistently saw nation-states falling down on the job with regard to six of the seven functions, they nonetheless continued to talk about the nation-state as the structure most likely to bring stability and justice to the people of the world.

President Obama’s points in the “Town Hall” speech touched all seven of what I have called the nation-state properties: 1) sovereignty, 2) boundedness, 3) attribution to or legitimacy of nation-states, 4) protection and provision for citizens, 5) the nation-state’s responsibility to instill law and order, 6) the old mythology of the unity of the nation-state, and 7) its modernity as an institution. My assertion is that the President of the United States (along with a number of other leaders and thinkers) is beginning to discuss the necessary maturation of several of these nation-state functions, especially sovereignty and boundedness.

Bracketing the language that addresses these implied evolutions is the symbolism of crossroads—crossroads of space, such as rivers, of culture, such as religion, and most importantly crossroads of social time. The President underscored this by saying “we’ve arrived at a moment where each nation and every citizen must choose at last how we respond to a world that has grown smaller and more connected than at any time in its existence.”

Leaders from America and other Great Powers have been treading carefully around the concept of sovereignty for some time. The treaties, entitled collectively the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the 30 years war, stipulated that the sovereign of a nation-state determines its religious practice — not some other authority, such as the Catholic Church. Until accelerating capabilities of communications and nuclear weapons made the concept of noninterference in other nations’ internal matters obsolete, sovereignty was nearly an ideology unto itself, a sort of western secular fundamentalism—except when it served Great Powers to interfere.

Sovereignty is being re-conceptualized; and the President noted that any nation’s use of resources and international behavior affects the overall equilibrium.

Related to this acknowledgement that no nation, not even the most remote or secretive, is truly sovereign any longer, were the recurrent linguistic turns on borders, boundaries, barriers and walls that have become permeable. The Strasbourg “Town Hall” contained three explicit mentions of “borders,” four mentions of “walls” (two mentions of the fall of the Berlin Wall) and other mentions of gaps, fences, gates, and divides, etc.—the repeated point being their futility. Complementing this theme was that of inexorable interdependence such as polities have never before known. The President made this point with regard to military security, culture, and communications, with one of the most dramatic statements being: “The economic crisis has proven the fact of our interdependence in the most visible way yet. Not more than a generation ago, it would have been difficult to imagine that the inability of somebody to pay for a house in Florida could contribute to the failure of the banking system in Iceland.”

As President Obama did in his inaugural speech, and as he did in the other five speeches on the trip, he asserted that at this historical moment of great peril, “this incredible moment in history,” as he called it, there is also epochal opportunity. In addition to an implication of a turning point, he implied a social reconstruction of time—from short term, narrow maximization of utility and gratification to a greater awareness of and commitment to long-term sustainability and efforts toward difficult and distant goals.

He underscored this de-legitimization of selfish interests by saying, “No more will the world’s financial players be able to make risky bets at the expense of ordinary people.” A potent linguistic thread that emerged was the idea of the commons, which are ruined if everyone treats them carelessly. The word “common” occurred in the speech a stunning 15 times in a 3,500-word speech, with only one of these being the synonym of “ordinary” and another being the synonym of “frequent.” The other 13 uses meant “shared” or “collective.” This emphasis appears extraordinary to me.

The dramatic point is that the people and the nations of the world will all suffer if any one is wasteful and destructive, and all benefit from right behavior. Referring to the poorer regions of the earth, he said, “So it’s not just charity. It’s a matter of understanding that our fates are tied together, not just the fates of Europe and America, but the fate of the entire world.” This indictment of narrow, short-term gratification was stated in many ways: “We’ve just emerged from an era marked by irresponsibility. And it would be easy to choose the path of selfishness or apathy, of blame or division, but that is a danger that we cannot afford.“ He mentioned the long term success of the Marshall plan and also said, “Over the long term…we’ve got to have a strategy that recognizes that the interest of the developed world in feeding the hungry, in educating children, that that’s not just charity; it’s in our interests.”

The President presents an emerging map of how the traditional properties of the dominant social structure must be updated. His use of language reveals clear ideas of how to proceed—though it remains to be seen how the nation-states of the world will navigate the obstacles of the crossroads.