What Change?

Although it’s generally agreed that Obama’s inauguration speech was “not much”’ as Commentary’s editor John Podhoretz wrote, I still want to delve into one of the main theses of this speech:   To the people of poor nations, we pledge … Read More

By / January 22, 2009

Although it’s generally agreed that Obama’s inauguration speech was “not much”’ as Commentary’s editor John Podhoretz wrote, I still want to delve into one of the main theses of this speech:


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.


I don’t think many serious people will argue that doing good for the world is, well, good. That feeding the hungry, if possible, is desirable. It is also not a novelty to espouse the Wilsonian message of the need not to be indifferent “to suffering outside our borders” (it’s called “Wilsonian” for a reason).

But I’d like to take issue with the last sentence of this paragraph, because I think that at the end of the day it all comes down to this: has the world really changed? And if it did, how?

Obama didn’t elaborate on this “change” assertions – he similarly avoided explaining his message of “change” during the campaign. It is essential to understand what kind of change Obama sees in the world, since he builds around it his call for America “to change with it”. How can one adapt oneself to changes around the world, when one doesn’t understand how the world has changed?

Like many leaders before him, Obama crafted a message to the crowds, and like many before him he tends to see the world as if everything has started afresh when he was elected. The world has changed when the first Bush was in office (end of the Soviet Empire). It has changed under Clinton (the internet), it has changed under the second Bush (9/11) – and going backwards we can easily find changes in every term of every president. Some bigger changes, some smaller changes. We see them as they happen, and we try to figure out what impact they will have in the future, and we try to adapt accordingly, sometimes successfully, sometimes less so.

The problem I have with Obama’s message is that I don’t know what change in the world he talks about. It must be something new – otherwise, why would Obama bother talking about things that we already know. And it must be something related to changes in other countries that also require change in American behavior – that’s the whole point of mentioning it.

I can try and guess what he means: maybe it’s really the war on terror, and his assumption that making the world safer will only be possible if other nations are more prosperous and less hungry. This is also an idea as old as the American republic – almost a cliché – and it’s also a matter for debate: it is not really clear whether prosperous countries are inherently less dangerous to the world than poor ones. Case in point: Iran. Case in point: Saudi Arabia. Of course, one can also find less well to do environments serving as fertile ground for despair and terror: Somalia, Afghanistan, Gaza, Egypt.

But since both prosperous areas and not-so-prosperous areas serve as launching pad to terrorists and agents of instability, one has to ask oneself if it’s really the hunger, or something else that makes the world dangerous. A reasonable conclusion – also not new – is that the real reason for such diseases is lack of democracy and corrupt leadership or chaotic atmosphere. Gaza – leadership which doesn’t care about the people. Somalia – no leadership. Afghanistan – same. Egypt – autocratic regime. Etc Etc.

And of course, this doesn’t mean that feeding the hungry can’t be an end of itself for many other reasons. Reasons mainly categorized as “idealistic” rather than “pragmatic”. That’s why I always thought that Obama’s message of pragmatic government – Hillary Clinton called it – has limits. As I wrote here:


[A]t the end of January, when the Obama administration has to start making decisions, its pragmatism will only help if there’s a framework of ideas and beliefs guiding it toward the right decisions. It is the pragmatic means that Obama hopes to be able to use–but there also has to be an end.


If Obama’s idealism is one that’s guiding him toward feeding the hungry around the world – I’m all for it. However, the world hasn’t changed in that respect, and if it did, it’s probably for the better: less hungry today than it was yesterday. But if Obama is trying to tell us that feeding the hungry will be the way with which he intends to fight dangerous, bad people – there’s reason to doubt the receipt, and even in these days of justified but rather mind-numbing celebration — also worry about the future.

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