How Obama Can Restore American Idealism

We have all heard the power of Barack Obama’s oratory, and that too can be an essential tool in foreign policy.

Now the hard part begins. To make the ideal real, or vice versa, is never as easy as it sounds in a speech. Well before the last “Yes We Can” poster was carted away from Grant Park, the world’s leaders were sending signals that once the party ended, they would be as difficult for President Obama as they were for President Bush. Mixed in with the congratulations they sent were the usual unreasonable requests for solutions to all of the world’s problems. In the same phone call, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan offered congratulations and demanded that Obama halt the bombings that have led to civilian casualties on the ground. American idealism has taken some serious hits over the years, maligned by the left (which disliked George W. Bush's grandiose pronouncements about the Freedom Agenda) and the right (which never felt comfortable with the high-flown Wilsonian language about democracy that Bush used to justify the war in Iraq). But idealism remains an essential resource, though tarnished under Bush, if properly calibrated to reality. History furnishes some guidance.

The last thing an incoming administration needs is to stage a long diplomatic harangue about nothing, inside an echo chamber.

One great president, neglected during the Bush years, might again lend service in these difficult times. Franklin D. Roosevelt was of course the leader swept into office during our last great financial meltdown. But he was also the finest foreign policy president in the history of the republic. I don’t just mean the simple fact that he led the Grand Alliance that crushed fascism and won World War II—though that was no mean feat. More relevant is that he possessed a clear vision of the post-war world he wanted to build and took concrete steps to realize it. The FDR name still holds currency in the world—in September 2007, French President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed “un New Deal écologique et économique” to the United Nations (an organization FDR created and named). As idealistic as Woodrow Wilson, whom he served under as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, but as realistic as any president in our history, FDR’s peculiar blend of charm and guile might serve well as the template for a new team seeking to define itself. The fact that FDR died before the postwar world he planned came into existence often denies him his rightful share of authorship. But he spoke and wrote movingly about what he was trying to do, and that work was partly carried on by his widow Eleanor after he left the scene. To a surprising degree, he was determined to end the colonial system personified by his closest ally, Winston Churchill—a policy that raised Winston’s hackles. They had long discussions about it during Churchill’s long visit to the White House in the winter of 1941-42, at one of the darkest moments of the war, and the two Anglo-Saxons found that they were speaking a very different language. Churchill, of course, expected the British Empire to survive and flourish. Roosevelt saw something very different—a world in which Wilson’s concept of self-determination was made available to colonized peoples around the world. In January 1942, reflecting on Churchill’s stubborn failure to get this, FDR said, “There are many kinds of Americans, of course, but as a people, as a country, we’re opposed to imperialism—we can’t stomach it.” Eleanor added, “The president has been having considerable trouble in getting the prime minister to grasp what kind of a country we are.” This discord came at the precise moment when most historians tell us that the Churchill-Roosevelt friendship really came together.

To Churchill’s irritation, FDR hammered relentlessly on the anti-colonial theme. During a brief trip to Gambia, the first time a US president had touched African soil, he denounced British colonialism as “just plain exploitation” and said it was “the most horrible thing I have ever seen in my life.”Before a group of African-American journalists, he said, “I am taking it up with Churchill at the present time—he doesn’t see the point yet—I think he will (laughter).”

The way in which FDR began to sketch the new world he wanted to build was through an old American device: the conference. FDR’s kinsman, Theodore Roosevelt, had received his Nobel Peace Prize by organizing the Portsmouth Peace Conference that ended war between Russia and Japan. FDR did TR one better by flying to one remote locale after another, in an extraordinary sequence of dangerous wartime trips, to talk privately and publicly with his partners.To Casablanca he went in January 1943 to plan the war’s conduct. To Cairo and Tehran he went in December 1943 to talk about the new world that would follow the war. What a surprise to learn that the latter city—later, a sinkhole of American idealism—was the place where FDR sketched out the most complete ideas to date for the United Nations. With complete disregard for the enormous danger he was in (a German-Japanese assassination plot was foiled at the last moment), and little care for the physical difficulty of making the trip, FDR stubbornly willed his ideals into reality. Incidentally, the summit was nearly held in Basra, Iraq.

Other conferences buttressed these ones—all organized by Americans. In Hot Springs, Virginia, the representatives of the world met in May 1943 to discuss food issues. In November 1943 they gathered at Atlantic City to discuss refugee problems. In July 1944, they organized the global economy at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire.In November 1944 they planned the world’s post-war aviation rules in Chicago. The final conference, the biggest of them all, happened two weeks after FDR died, when the UN came into existence at San Francisco. A young reporter named John F. Kennedy was there to cover it.

Of course, conferences can be ineffectual, and the problems of the 1940s are different from those we face today. The last thing an incoming administration needs is to stage a long diplomatic harangue about nothing, inside an echo chamber. But still, FDR’s record gives some hope to a world frustrated by America’s unwillingness to lead or to listen.The world wants desperately to like America again—our favorability ratings have been rising in Pew global surveys, simply because of the inevitability that a new government would come in. A set of ringing statements about American values, combined with hard-nosed conferences on the ground, might reshape the foreign policy picture for a generation. Talk about community organizing! And restating that America has a powerful tradition of anti-imperialism would come naturally to the former schoolboy from Jakarta.

Harry Truman’s brilliant Secretary of State Dean Acheson said it should be US policy to be “the first to attend international conferences and the last to retire.” No one would accuse Acheson the realist of soft idealism. That we need a new set of financial rules is clear—and a Bretton Woods type of conference might be an effective first step. But a major US conference on climate change and renewable energy would also send a remarkable message to the world, and if it was hosted on US soil, would seem less foreign than the Kyoto Protocols.

We have all heard the power of Barack Obama’s oratory, and that too can be an essential tool in foreign policy. Roosevelt’s difficult proposals were made far easier by his ability to root them in older American traditions—the Atlantic Charter, declaring American support for Britain, also proclaimed the power of human rights, echoing the Declaration of Independence and anticipating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Just words, yes—but words that said something large.No one knows the future yet. But the past holds some tantalizing clues. Lincoln knew we were not perfect. With a sense of humility, he called us God’s “almost chosen people.” But he and FDR went a long way toward making American idealism and realism one and the same. That’s a wellspring worth drawing from.

Ted Widmer, former director of speechwriting at the National Security Council under President Clinton, is the author of Ark of the Liberties: America and the World, and directs the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.