Watching President Barack Obama explain and defend the landmark nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 group, I was struck by how fragile are the attempts at peace, and how inertia – be it short-sighted stubbornness, ideology, political partisanship and expediency, or a lucrative status quo invested in armaments, brinksmanship, and a permanent war footing – often tends to lead us to disunity, lawlessness and chaos.
I was also struck by how this president, derided by his critics as dangerously naïve, feckless, a mere “community organizer,” embodies no less than the spirit and the vision of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who lifted this country out of the worst economic disaster in its history by first providing work, hope and inspiration to an impoverished nation and then, faced with the prospect of a holocaust engulfing Europe, organized the U.S. and other countries into an allied coalition which succeeded in turning the tide of history, liberating Europe and Asia from fascism, and ensuring decades of good relations between our former enemies.
Similarly, President John F. Kennedy sought to overcome the Cold War nuclear stalemate, brokering the historic Test Ban Treaty with the Soviets and staring down Premier Nikita Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis – but heroically avoiding war, over the objections of opponents who loudly urged him to show “leadership” and “strength.”
JFK also worked to promote American well-being and optimism through a widely shared prosperity and an emphasis on scientific, educational and cultural achievements, sought to community-organize through health care initiatives and civil rights reform, and promoted a sense of national purpose through initiatives such as the space program and the Peace Corps.
I was also reminded of last year’s US-Africa Leaders Summit – for which President Obama brought along 500 business men and women to forge greater economic ties with one of the world's fastest growing regions – and how President Obama reached out to these nations as equals.
Many mocked the trip as another one of Obama’s endless, taxpayer funded vacations.
But that effort, laughable to some, culminated in the renewal last month of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which will allow sub-Saharan countries to sell their goods in the United States duty-free and forge stronger ties with American interests.
President Obama also raised hackles when he signaled his intent, in an announcement to the Iranian people in 2009, to overcome longstanding animosities between Iran, the U.S., and the world at large.
Through years of negotiations and diplomacy, he managed to enlist the world’s great powers in the effort, overcome criticism that he would fail to engage the hostile and untrustworthy Iranians, and counter accusations that he was ensuring an Iranian doomsday bomb and exacerbating an existential threat to our ally Israel.
And now, an agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program to peaceful purposes – unprecedented in the scope and intrusiveness of its inspections and enforcement regime –has been passed unanimously by the United Nations Security Council and is awaiting review by Congress.
President Obama also is negotiating to forge closer economic ties and establish enforceable labor and environmental standards among 11 Asian and Pacific nations through the Trans Pacific Partnership. This agreement, years in preparation, was heralded by Obama in a 2011 address to the Australian Parliament, in which he reaffirmed America’s role as a Pacific power and a champion of fair and free trade.
Despite harsh criticism and opposition from many elected Democrats and labor leaders – who decried the initiative as a sellout of American workers, and even a surrendering of American sovereignty to multinational corporations and foreign interests – Obama recently secured authority to conclude negotiations and bring a finalized agreement to Congress.
Upon a successful conclusion of an Asia-Pacific pact, his fast-track authority will enable him to conclude ongoing negotiations for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a similar U.S.-Europe trade agreement.
In what has been described as the Obama Doctrine - America is strongest not when it leads with its might, but with its principles – we see a vision emerge that embraces statesmanship, economics, human rights and social justice, education and scientific inquiry, and a commitment to forging partnerships that strengthen internationally recognized ideals.
Just as the earliest nation builders and community organizers recognized, despite the seeming randomness and chaos of Creation, the physical universe exhibits patterns of elegant, exquisite and profound organization. Once we realize the beautiful, harmonious, rational basis for universal patterns of organization, the question then becomes: how should we organize our affairs and personal relations, our communities, and our nations, so that we may live our lives in harmony and in accordance with a universal order in a way that ensures peace, justice, freedom and dignity to all living souls on our planet?
How can we walk this Earth as brothers and sisters, and how can we share this world as family?
As the President said when announcing the Iran nuclear agreement, “We are stronger not when we are alone, but when we bring the world together.”
President Obama inherited two long, ruinous wars that served to inflame and radicalize our adversaries, alienate our strongest allies, and promote cynicism about America’s moral authority as a world leader, and he has ended both combat missions while attempting to build a worldwide global coalition to resolve crises in the Middle East and one between Russia and Ukraine.
And easing travel restrictions and normalizing relations with Cuba – marking the end of the Cold War in the Western Hemisphere – promises to relieve isolation for Cuban citizens, strengthen the hand of reformers, and undercut attempts by Russia and Venezuela to forge wider hemispheric links.
President Obama’s attempts to broker a peace treaty between Israel and Palestine, his success in getting Syria to surrender its chemical weapons without a fight, his determination to assemble a coalition of allies – and adversaries – to combat the terrorist group ISIS on their home turf, and his ongoing attempts to address Iran's nuclear ambitions with diplomacy mark a renewed attempt to organize a world community around something besides war and an attempt to dominate over other peoples:
He is attempting to reaffirm and uphold the principles that inspired us to save the world from fascism and totalitarianism, and strengthen a community of nations with the capacity to coexist and resolve problems peacefully, and without a desire to dominate another people.
We constantly hear cries of “get government out of the way” from conservatives chafing under the burden of taxes and regulations designed to protect the public and ensure fair business practices.
Gun rights absolutists revel in the “Dirty Harry” image of the lone dispenser of justice who is willing to skirt the law and violate civil rights of suspects in his pursuit of law and order.
A popular culture awash in crime-fighting “action heroes” and overwrought police dramas, and tabloid-style news programs that exaggerate and sensationalize the incidence of violent crime, reinforce the narratives of gun-rights absolutists who oppose even the most moderate and least-intrusive restrictions as counter to their need for self-protection, of legislators who champion vigilante-inspired Stand Your Ground laws, and of law-and-order ideologues who advocate for an increasingly militarized police force.
These efforts do not promote, but tear apart, the sense of community. Just as the radical free market fundamentalists who decry any government regulation of our economy for the benefit of the public welfare as an ill-conceived and counter-productive intrusion, and who espouse an “individualism” that is little more than social atomism and division, the law-and-order absolutists who exploit fear of violent crime and insist that we are all alone and defenseless without our personal arsenal serve to undermine and raise doubts on the effectiveness of our social order and our institutions for collective action and justice.
Their proposals would not usher in a more free society, but a nightmarish dystopia best described by Thomas Hobbes: “No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
And so, the debate before us is not between big government and limited government; it is between smart, effective leadership that works to solve problems and bring people together to work toward mutually beneficial goals, and abusive governments that perpetuate the privileges of special interests and maintain power imbalances by dominating others, and which do not enjoy the consent of its people.
It’s the age-old battle between chaos and community.
And so it goes: the community organizer’s continuing struggle for A More Perfect Union.