‘Without this deal,” said President Obama on Tuesday, “there is no scenario where the world joins us in sanctioning Iran until it completely dismantles its nuclear program.” That was nothing new. Throughout the negotiations with Iran, “the world” has been one of the president’s favorite defenses against criticism. “Nothing we know about the Iranian government suggests that it would simply capitulate under that kind of pressure,” he continued. “And the world would not support an effort to permanently sanction Iran into submission.”
In a 15-minute speech on a paramount issue of national security, Obama mentioned “the world” some 12 times. It’s worth asking exactly what he means when he appeals to such authority. For the world as a whole is—to say the least—not thrilled at the prospect of rewarding Iran for promising to freeze elements of its nuclear program for a decade. Americans don’t trust the Iranians to live up to the agreement, Israel is rightly terrified of Iranian threats, and Sunni powers such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt are likely to pursue their own nuclear programs now that the Iranian one has been preserved. When Obama says “the world” won’t continue the sanctions regime indefinitely, he’s actually referring to specific nations: the welfare states of Europe and the Russian and Chinese autocracies.
And not just these nations but the elites who run them: the bien-pensant global left, the largely unelected functionaries who believe in global warming as a greater threat than nuclear terrorism, in “pooling sovereignty” to limit freedom of action, in diplomacy over deterrence, in the West’s sin of colonial exploitation, in the free movement of peoples across borders, in measures that expand and enhance the power of states and state-aligned businesses over markets and individuals. And while Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping may not believe any of the platitudes their foreign ministers dutifully trade in at international gatherings, they are happy to benefit from the indulgent naïveté of Western liberals. These are the men and women whose good opinion constitutes Obama’s “world.”
When did U.S. foreign policy become dependent on the wishes of Europeans, Russians, and Chinese? For decades, liberals in the Democratic party have tried to subordinate American hawkishness to dovish multilateral institutions such as the United Nations. Their efforts became more pronounced during the second war in Iraq. As the Democratic nominee for president in 2004, John Kerry invoked a “global test” that would determine the legitimacy of U.S. interventions abroad. Here, too, Kerry wasn’t actually talking about the entirety of global opinion—plenty of countries backed the U.S. invasion of Iraq—but the slice of it that includes Paris, Brussels, Berlin, Moscow, and Beijing.
Still, the idea of a global test implies that America is separate from—even independent of—our Euro-Asian proctors. What makes President Obama unique is his attempt to collapse the distinction between American sovereignty and sovereignty as understood by “the world.” Obama has acted as if he represented two bodies: the American electorate and the global community. As a candidate for president in 2008 he addressed the people of Germany as “a fellow citizen of the world.” As president he said “no one nation can or should try to dominate another nation,” repeated his declaration of world citizenship, and became the first chief executive of the United States to chair a meeting of the U.N. Security Council.
Obama justified his 2011 war against Muammar Qaddafi on the basis of world opinion. His casus belli wasn’t a provocation against America but against the amorphous international community. “In the face of the world’s condemnation,” the president said in one speech, “Qaddafi chose to escalate his attacks, launching a military campaign against the Libyan people.” The Libyans “appealed to the world to save lives.” Action was taken to prevent “a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.”
America was not at the forefront of the assault, Obama said, but just one partner in “a strong and growing coalition.” Indeed, as an anonymous aide famously put it, we were leading from behind. Qaddafi was deposed, killed by a mob in October 2011, his arsenal plundered, and his country left to the depredations of warring tribes, al Qaeda, ISIS, and human traffickers.
The opinion of “the world” trumps its American counterpart. In early March 2011, 63 percent of respondents told the Pew Research Center that America did not have a responsibility to end the Libyan civil war, and public opinion was split, 44-45 percent, on whether to enforce a no-fly zone there. Obama went to war anyway, without congressional authorization.