Stephen M. Walt

A thought experiment: What if Obama delivered Bush’s 2nd inaugural?

My class at the Kennedy School is examining liberal theories of international politics this week, and the policy issue we’ll be discussing is the question of democracy promotion. One of the assigned readings is former President George W. Bush’s 2nd Inaugural Address. As you’ll probably remember, the address was a soaring anthem to virtues of ...

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My class at the Kennedy School is examining liberal theories of international politics this week, and the policy issue we’ll be discussing is the question of democracy promotion. One of the assigned readings is former President George W. Bush’s 2nd Inaugural Address. As you’ll probably remember, the address was a soaring anthem to virtues of liberty and America’s commitment to promoting it around the world. Some of the its choicer lines included:

The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.”

“America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one.”

“It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

“The great objective of ending tyranny is the concentrated work of generations.”

It would be easy to pick the speech apart, of course, or to point out that Bush’s lofty declarations about “America’s belief in human dignity” were at odds  with the torture regime that he oversaw as president. It was also the kind of speech that tends to make even America’s friends overseas nervous, as they wonder what new crusades the United States might contemplating.

But that’s not the point I want to make today. As I read it over preparing for class, I had an odd thought: what if Barack Obama gave the same speech? How would Americans react, and how would foreign audiences perceive it? I read it again, and imagined Obama’s voice and cadences uttering the same lines. And you know what? It read a lot better that way. Try it yourself and see. (If you want to make this hypothetical easier to imagine, throw in the phrase “Make no mistake” once or twice).

I draw three rather obvious conclusions from this exercise. First, when you like a political leader, you’ll tend to like what he or she says no matter what the actual words are. Conversely, if you’ve already decided you don’t like someone, there’s little they could do to convince you. Second, liberal values are deeply infused into American political culture, which is why either Bush or Obama could use a lot of the same phrases and invoke the same sweeping language and get a lot of heads to nod in assent. Third, as long as the United States is very, very powerful, there will be a strong outward thrust to its foreign policy, even when vital interests aren’t at stake and even when meddling abroad could make things worse rather than better. 

PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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