Belated Cairo Reax

I don’t have any specially interesting ones. I thought it was a good speech, but didn’t break that much new ground, and I think the general reception in the region – “good words; let’s see the deeds” is pretty much what we should have expected.

But I did want to recall a comment I made on Obama’s inaugural address, because it was relevant to his Cairo speech as well. Here it is:

[T]here was an interesting tension between two visions of America’s role vis-a-vis the rest of the world.

I’ll illustrate the tension with two passages that followed immediately one upon the other:

“To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West – know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

“To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.”

The first passage partakes of what I would call an “East-West” policy orientation. The mere fact that it begins with a message to “the Muslim world” – another world, not our world, with its own identity – suggests we’re in a Huntingtonian paradigm of distinct civilizations – interpenetrated and internally diverse, yes, but still distinct – that need to have relations with each other. The Western world is one; the Muslim world is another. Obama seeks better relations between them based on mutual interest and mutual respect. We may not like the way they do things over there, but we’ll seek to change their ways primarily by showing them a better way, by example. Note that this passage is primarily addressed to leaders of nations.

The second passage partakes of what I would call a “North-South” policy orientation. There’s only one world, but there are rich countries and poor countries, and the rich have both a moral obligation and a rational self-interest in the welfare of the poor countries – and to that end are inevitably going to be involved in their internal affairs (suffering outside our borders is, by definition, inside someone else’s borders). That involvement certainly need not involve violence, but it is hard to reconcile with the kind of distance required for “mutual respect.” Mutual respect between donor and recipient of aid is a very tough thing to achieve – thymos keeps getting in the way. Note that this passage is primarily addressed to people of nations, bypassing their leaders.

A tension between the two orientations is highlighted by the simple fact that there’s a lot of “South” in the “East” – majority-Muslim countries are among the largest poor countries in the world.

I don’t mean to suggest that there’s no way the two perspectives can work together in a mutually-reinforcing manner. But I do think it’s important to highlight the differences, and potential conflicts, between viewing the world as one, with ourselves as the leader, and viewing the world as many, with ourselves as the largest single force within it.