Monday, November 16, 2009

Obama pitches "The End of History" in Shanghai

By now the scene that played out in Shanghai yesterday is familiar: Obama first addressing and then fielding questions from young students in a far-off quarter of the globe.

In these forums, Obama makes a case for values every American president promotes in speeches: freedom of speech, freedom of information, equal rights for all citizens, accountable government. But for those of us who admire the basic architecture of Obama's thinking and rhetoric, these youth forums are balm after the Bush years. Obama doesn't simply promote these values; he exemplifies them, in the complexity and clarity and nuance of the way he presents them. He is an embodiment of American values, not because of the ethnic heritage he always cites, but because of the way his mind works.

In the question period in Shanghai, he was plainly aiming not so much to argue for freedom -- some have hit him for not engaging directly with Chinese human rights absues -- as to waken in his young audience a thirst for it. Here's part of his response to a "how can a student be successful like you" question:
You know, the people who I meet now that I find most inspiring who are successful I think are people who are not only willing to work very hard but are constantly trying to improve themselves and to think in new ways, and not just accept the conventional wisdom...

But I think that whatever field you go into, if you're constantly trying to improve and never satisfied with not having done your best, and constantly asking new questions -- "Are there things that I could be doing differently? Are there new approaches to problems that nobody has thought of before, whether it's in science or technology or in the arts? -- those are usually the people who I think are able to rise about the rest.
That is plainly not a mainstream message in Chinese culture. It's not an explicitly political message. But it connects back to a prior answer in which Obama referred to his own experience to make the case for open criticism of government (when asked whether Chinese should be able to use Twitter freely):
I think that the more freely information flows, the stronger the society becomes, because then citizens of countries around the world can hold their own governments accountable. They can begin to think for themselves. That generates new ideas. It encourages creativity.

And so I've always been a strong supporter of open Internet use. I'm a big supporter of non-censorship. This is part of the tradition of the United States that I discussed before, and I recognize that different countries have different traditions. I can tell you that in the United States, the fact that we have free Internet -- or unrestricted Internet access is a source of strength, and I think should be encouraged.

Now, I should tell you, I should be honest, as President of the United States, there are times where I wish information didn't flow so freely because then I wouldn't have to listen to people criticizing me all the time. I think people naturally are -- when they're in positions of power sometimes thinks, oh, how could that person say that about me, or that's irresponsible, or -- but the truth is that because in the United States information is free, and I have a lot of critics in the United States who can say all kinds of things about me, I actually think that that makes our democracy stronger and it makes me a better leader because it forces me to hear opinions that I don't want to hear. It forces me to examine what I'm doing on a day-to-day basis to see, am I really doing the very best that I could be doing for the people of the United States.

And I think the Internet has become an even more powerful tool for that kind of citizen participation. In fact, one of the reasons that I won the presidency was because we were able to mobilize young people like yourself to get involved through the Internet. Initially, nobody thought we could win because we didn't have necessarily the most wealthy supporters; we didn't have the most powerful political brokers. But through the Internet, people became excited about our campaign and they started to organize and meet and set up campaign activities and events and rallies. And it really ended up creating the kind of bottom-up movement that allowed us to do very well.

Now, that's not just true in -- for government and politics. It's also true for business. You think about a company like Google that only 20 years ago was -- less than 20 years ago was the idea of a couple of people not much older than you. It was a science project. And suddenly because of the Internet, they were able to create an industry that has revolutionized commerce all around the world. So if it had not been for the freedom and the openness that the Internet allows, Google wouldn't exist.

Th answer is multilayered. Obama asserts that he's a better President and better thinker for being severely criticized. That the forces that brought him to power are inseparable from the forces that allow him to be excoriated. And that the forces that bring such a leader to the fore also foster companies like Google. As he does more explicitly in his opening speech, Obama connects economic successs to freedom of thought.

Philip Stephens credited Obama early this year for "realising that to understand the extent of US power...a president must also map its limits." That dictum defines the way Obama makes the case for free speech, equality, accountable government. Here is the frame he placed around that advocacy in his opening remarks in Shanghai:

1. Assert mutual dependence and affirm the benefits of partnership.
2. Lay a foundation of respect for the audience's culture and history
3. Articulate the principles expressed in the United States' founding documents
4. Acknowledge American imperfection in pursuit of those principles
5. Catalog the benefits that have accrued to the U.S. by pursuing those principles
6. Acknowledge the shared pedigree of the principles; they are not merely American
7. Assert their universality
8. Connect political/intellectual freedom to free markets
9. Assert that the U.S. can/must learn from China (as well as implicitly 'teach' human rights).

Note how these factors work (and come full circle) in the heart of Obama's speech:

1. It is no coincidence that the relationship between our countries has accompanied a period of positive change. 2. China has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty -- an accomplishment unparalleled in human history -- while playing a larger role in global events. 1.And the United States has seen our economy grow along with the standard of living enjoyed by our people, while bringing the Cold War to a successful conclusion.

2. There is a Chinese proverb: "Consider the past, and you shall know the future." Surely, we have known setbacks and challenges over the last 30 years. Our relationship has not been without disagreement and difficulty. 1. But the notion that we must be adversaries is not predestined -- not when we consider the past. Indeed, because of our cooperation, both the United States and China are more prosperous and more secure. We have seen what is possible when we build upon our mutual interests, and engage on the basis of mutual respect.

And yet the success of that engagement depends upon understanding -- on sustaining an open dialogue, and learning about one another and from one another. For just as that American table tennis player pointed out -- we share much in common as human beings, but our countries are different in certain ways.

I believe that each country must chart its own course. 2.China is an ancient nation, with a deeply rooted culture. The United States, by comparison, is a young nation, whose culture is determined by the many different immigrants who have come to our shores, and by the founding documents that guide our democracy.

3. Those documents put forward a simple vision of human affairs, and they enshrine several core principles -- that all men and women are created equal, and possess certain fundamental rights; that government should reflect the will of the people and respond to their wishes; that commerce should be open, information freely accessible; and that laws, and not simply men, should guarantee the administration of justice.

4. Of course, the story of our nation is not without its difficult chapters. In many ways -- over many years -- we have struggled to advance the promise of these principles to all of our people, and to forge a more perfect union. We fought a very painful civil war, and freed a portion of our population from slavery. It took time for women to be extended the right to vote, workers to win the right to organize, and for immigrants from different corners of the globe to be fully embraced. Even after they were freed, African Americans persevered through conditions that were separate and not equal, before winning full and equal rights.

5. None of this was easy. But we made progress because of our belief in those core principles, which have served as our compass through the darkest of storms. That is why Lincoln could stand up in the midst of civil war and declare it a struggle to see whether any nation, conceived in liberty, and "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal" could long endure. That is why Dr. Martin Luther King could stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and ask that our nation live out the true meaning of its creed. That's why immigrants from China to Kenya could find a home on our shores; why opportunity is available to all who would work for it; and why someone like me, who less than 50 years ago would have had trouble voting in some parts of America, is now able to serve as its President.

6., 7. And that is why America will always speak out for these core principles around the world. We do not seek to impose any system of government on any other nation, but we also don't believe that the principles that we stand for are unique to our nation. These freedoms of expression and worship -- of access to information and political participation -- we believe are universal rights. They should be available to all people, including ethnic and religious minorities -- whether they are in the United States, China, or any nation. 8. Indeed, it is that respect for universal rights that guides America's openness to other countries; our respect for different cultures; our commitment to international law; and our faith in the future.

These are all things that you should know about America. 9. I also know that we have much to learn about China. Looking around at this magnificent city -- and looking around this room -- I do believe that our nations hold something important in common, and that is a belief in the future. Neither the United States nor China is content to rest on our achievements. For while China is an ancient nation, you are also clearly looking ahead with confidence, ambition, and a commitment to see that tomorrow's generation can do better than today's.

2. In addition to your growing economy, we admire China's extraordinary commitment to science and research -- a commitment borne out in everything from the infrastructure you build to the technology you use. China is now the world's largest Internet user -- which is why we were so pleased to include the Internet as a part of today's event. This country now has the world's largest mobile phone network, and it is investing in the new forms of energy that can both sustain growth and combat climate change -- and I'm looking forward to deepening the partnership between the United States and China in this critical area tomorrow. But above all, I see China's future in you -- young people whose talent and dedication and dreams will do so much to help shape the 21st century.

1. I've said many times that I believe that our world is now fundamentally interconnected. The jobs we do, the prosperity we build, the environment we protect, the security that we seek -- all of these things are shared. And given that interconnection, power in the 21st century is no longer a zero-sum game; one country's success need not come at the expense of another. And that is why the United States insists we do not seek to contain China's rise. 2. On the contrary, we welcome China as a strong and prosperous and successful member of the community of nations -- a China that draws on the rights, strengths, and creativity of individual Chinese like you.

To return to the proverb -- consider the past. 1.,2. We know that more is to be gained when great powers cooperate than when they collide. That is a lesson that human beings have learned time and again, and that is the example of the history between our nations. And I believe strongly that cooperation must go beyond our government. It must be rooted in our people -- in the studies we share, the business that we do, the knowledge that we gain, and even in the sports that we play. And these bridges must be built by young men and women just like you and your counterparts in America.

It may be an obvious message, but there's power in the simple assertion: "We do not seek to contain China's rise." That statement "contains" the doctrine of containment, which has been the dominant fact of geopolitics since the end of World War II. The message is that "containment" is directed at malignantly aggressive political forces, not at rival powers by simple virtue of their gaining power. It makes explicit Obama's broadest message: that democratic capitalism is not zero sum, that future prosperity must be shared prosperity, and that ultimately, only through universal acknowledgment of rights and principles of government that Obama affirms as universal can shared prosperity be triggered.

There is a Fukuyaman faith here that China's pursuit of prosperity will lead it inevitably to democracy -- not laid down as a challenge, but planted as a seed of desire in the country's young.

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