Obama in Berlin: ich bin ein Weltbürger?

Senator Barack Obama was Thursday 24 July 2008 in Berlin where he delivered his much anticipated speech in front of a massive crowd. Of course the reference to “ich bin ein Berliner” was obvious and too easy to mention. He opened his speech toning down expectations, stating he was there as a simple US citizen, and a “citizen of the world.” Rhetorically he is leaving it up to the media coverage to make the link: “ich bin ein Weltbürger.”

To my knowledge, this must be one of the very first time a politician declares so openly a cosmopolitan ideal to be his. There is certainly much to celebrate for a cosmopolitan in this speech, but I would like to present a few remarks as to the alleged cosmopolitan nature of his commitment.

Barack Obama is strongly emphasising history. His narrative is mixing his own individual history with History, and the former influences the latter. For the first time, a politician takes it as a positive and self-promoting way to underline a transnational and transcontinental heritage: European, African, and North American. However, his own individual narrative is American, and hence his historical narrative is also emphasising an American view of the world. Obama thus retold Berlin’s past in the cold war. “People of the world – look at Berlin!” he asks. In fact, he asks them to look at how the USA has helped and fought the 20th century enemy – communism. For the 21st century the enemy is terrorism, and then other foes such as undemocratic regimes, nuclear threats, and global environmental challenges. For these reasons Europe and America must pass their differences and work together because “… the burdens of global citizenship continue to bind us together.” Only through partnership and cooperation between Americans and Europeans is it possible “to protect our common security and advance our common humanity.”

I cannot but be enthusiastic about such a speech. Clearly a cosmopolitan agenda is on the making. However, I recall Dunn’s words about the role of intellectual history in politics: “Where the history of political theory remains of decisive significance … is in the clarification and assessment of political goals and in the appraisal of political action.” Since I am studying cosmopolitanism as a political doctrine, both epistemologically and ontologically, I feel compelled to a few remarks to America’s potential next president.

Perhaps it was just Lacanian to connect in the same sentence the idea of “common security” and “common humanity.” Whose humanity is that anyway? Clearly it is a Western security connected to a Western conception of “our humanity.” We know since Anderson’s book on nation, that these are imagined communities. As Robbins states it “worlds too are ‘imagined.'” Or as Pollock et al. argues, there are many versions of cosmopolitanism, many cosmopolitanisms and not just one. This means that when we reflect upon our common humanity we do so necessarily in our own rooted local discourse. For Obama, it is the American discourse, and more widely the Western discourse.

In the Western discourse of cosmopolitanism, the vision of a common humanity sharing a common world emerged as a dominant discourse during the Enlightenment. Inherited from the humanist reactions against the atrocities committed in the name of religion against the “Indians” in America and between protestants and catholics in Europe, enlightened philosophes started to state political and moral theories based on a vision of a common humankind. Doing so, they opened the possibility to place oneself as a subject speaking for humankind. This was rhetorically done through the concept of universal reason. Since reason is what defines humankind, one using reason is necessarily speaking for humankind. Thus, laws of morality could be induced from using reason and observing man: moral and political “sciences” were born.

Obviously the danger of this modern positivist account of cosmopolitanism is the absence of consideration that by speaking for humankind on the behalf of humankind, one is in fact speaking for the humankind one would like to see, and from one’s own local perception of it. Of course, fighting terrorism, promoting human rights, and cooperating to fight global warming are policies everyone should endorse because they are for the benefit of humankind. What I want to underline is that “we” (“Westerners”) should do so by understanding that “others” have a saying and should be included in discussing how and why to do so. Otherwise, it is pure imperialism or universalism, and not cosmopolitanism.

Of course I feel enthusiastic to be included as a potential political force of the 21st century: “It is in pursuit of these aspirations that a new generation – our generation – must make our mark on the world.” However, I would like to warn presidential candidate Obama and “our generation” about making “our mark on the world”: we must learn to include others, listen and engage dialogues with the world, because “worlds too are imagined.” It is during the eighteenth century that the expression “citizen of the word” became fashionable; until some abused the word to pretend to philosophical truths and objectivity they did not possibly mean; until the French revolution attempted to export real kosmopolitik to Europe by claiming to fight for human rights; until the word “cosmopolitan” became associated with a uniform imperialism.

Works cited:

Anderson, Benedict.  Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1991 rev. ed. [1983] .

Dunn, John. “The History of Political Theory.” In The History of Political Theory and Other Essays, by John Dunn, 11-38. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Pollock, Sheldon, Homi K. Bhabha, Carol A. Breckenridge, and Dipesh Chakrabarty. “Cosmopolitanisms.” In Cosmopolitanism, edited by Carol A. Breckenridge, Sheldon Pollock, Homi K. Bhabha and Dipesh Chakrabarty, 1-14. Durham, NC & London: A Millennial Quartet Book, 2002.

Robbins, Bruce. “Actually Existing Cosmopolitanism.” In Cosmopolitics: Thinking and Feeling Beyond the Nation, edited by Pheng Cheah and Bruce Robbins, 1-19. Minneapolis, MN & London: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.

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About Frank Ejby Poulsen

Education: MRes History, European University Institute, Florence, Italy. MSc Political Science, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. LLM International law and EU law, University of Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne, France. Academia Profile: http://eui.academia.edu/FrankEjbyPoulsen Languages: French: Mother tongue Danish: C2 English: C2 German: B1-B2 Spanish: A2-B1 Norwegian and Swedish: reading comprehension
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