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Monday, June 27, 2011

When Platitudes Undermine Proposals

Barak Obama’s 2010 speech at the UN’s annual opening lacked tangible proposals.  For example, he urged progress on the Middle East peace talks, but proffered no proposal.  He said Africa could be prosperous agriculturally, but gave no proposal for how.  He claimed that corruption in governments of developing countries is a problem, but offered no solution.  Pointing to corruption in general diffuses responsibility so talking about it does not shame anyone into making hard choices. 

The president could have urged African leaders to cede more governmental sovereignty to the African Union, which in turn could act as a check on government corruption at the state level.  Also, he could have proposed a loose federal confederation for the Middle East, which would mitigate the middle east conflict. Finally, he could have gone beyond citing his efforts to reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation to announce that the U.S. would join the ten countries that have created a movement with the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons completely. Meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, the ten countries launched the new initiative to work towards a world without nuclear weapons. Foreign ministers, led by Japan and Australia, hoped to bring new life to efforts for nonproliferation and disarmament. Their mission statement said: “The only guarantee against the use and threat of nuclear weapons is their total elimination.” This would indeed be real change.  In contrast, Obama said only that his goal is securing loose nuclear material around the world in four years. 

In short, real change goes beyond politics as usual and platitudes. It goes beyond incrementalism to proffer systemic change. Sadly, being tied to the vested (i.e., wealthy) interests of the status quo severely delimits the range of policy prescribed. That is to say, refusing the challenge the status quo closes restricts one’s ability to lead.


Catherine Bolsover, “Germany Joins New International Initiative for Nuclear Disarmament,” Deutsche Welle, September 23, 2010.