The President's speech to the United Nations General Assembly today seems strangely similar to speeches he has made to purely American audiences. That resemblance may be revealing of a consistent Obama philosophy as well as an ironic similarity between partisan government in one country and international bodies. His message in either context tends to be: let's get over our petty obsolete differences and solve problems together. In either venue, he confronts people who flourish on exploiting petty differences and people who honestly don't see problems where he does. Whether the subject is parties or nations, there are groups who see deliberative bodies like Congress or the United Nations as playing fields where deliberation is a game that different sides play to win.
Today Obama was pleading for powers like China and Russia to play their proper role in solving the world's problems if they don't want to deal with American unilateralism. But what if, where Obama sees problems, those countries and others see opportunities to exploit in order to advance their strategic positions in the world. The issues could be ecological or geopolitical, but nationalism and self-interest will encourage a "so what?" attitude among some countries just as partisanship does in our own legislatures. Obama's approach may just be the other side of the coin that had been Bush's face up for the last eight years. While Bushite idealism refuses to understand why others don't see everything as Americans do, Obamite idealism (or as critics call it, "naivete") struggles to comprehend why others don't act as if we are, after all, all human beings with common interests in the future of the planet. But what is one to do with the knowledge that everyone else, as it sometimes seems, wants to treat politics, whether local, national or global, as a game of winners and losers, when your own feeling, as I suspect Obama's is, is that life is not a game?
At every level of social existence, competition seems like an ineradicable impulse that could end up eradicating human life someday. Yet people flinch from any invitation to cooperation as if someone was going to rob them or otherwise trick them; some can't help but see it as a loser's attempt to gain a competitive advantage. So how do you break the competitive paradigm? Some say you can't, or that even if you could the cost would be stagnation or worse. They point to the 20th century as proof that any attempt to change human nature is doomed. The irony of it is that those same people, if they're Americans, expect the nations of the world to change, to learn to cooperate, or at least to cooperate with the world's most reasonable nation, ours truly. They rage at the intransigence of Russia or Iran or Venezuela when they look out the window, and then they close it and resume their own raging intransigence at home. President Obama has made it his business to overcome intransigence in both directions. Good luck with that.