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Obama is the first cosmopolitan president

January 20, 2009 17:16 IST

A leader is a blank slate for the projection of all our hopes, Barack Obama perhaps more so than most. To some he symbolises an end to racism, to some an end to partisan politics, to some a salve for economic wounds.

To me, he cuts a symbolic figure as our first cosmopolitan president. He is, that is, a citizen of the world. I project cosmopolitanism onto Obama because of his background: The Kansan mother and Kenyan father, the upbringing in Hawaii and Indonesia. His political birth took place in Chicago. But to me Obama is a global citizen in the most reassuring way.

Before the election, Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan lamented that both Obama and John McCain symbolised the "end of placeness." Neither could be strongly identified as "from" a specific location. McCain because, as a navy brat and then a service member, he moved around a lot before finally settling in Arizona.

Neither of them are rooted to their terroir in the way of America's old-time politicians from the Mississippi Delta or Irish Boston, or in the way Bill Clinton could be strongly identified with Arkansas and George W Bush with Texas.

What Noonan laments, I celebrate. I was attracted to candidate Obama in part because of, not despite, his dislocated background. I identified with it. It meant sympathy for my own stints living abroad and my habit of roving around the world for work, education and pleasure.

I'm not alone: Obama's background meant that he understood the life of an enormous swathe of young Americans. We are predominately urban, coastal, college educated, under 40 and our sense of normal is not Peggy Noonan's or George W Bush's. In my world, it is stranger not to have lived abroad than to have done so.

I chose to settle down in a big, diverse city because it makes me feel at home. I would find it bizarre to suddenly be surrounded by people of a single race or cultural outlook.

Discovering last week that my new hairdresser was from Uzbekistan made me feel reassured that all was right in the world. Maybe that's the same sense of reassurance that members of an older, more stationary generation got from knowing that someone was one of their own.

But my Uzbek hairdresser is one of my own: He traveled far from home. He chose this place rather than having it thrust upon him. He is surrounded every day by a babel of languages, a smorgasbord of cuisines. This is my culture.

Political opponents sought to 'smear' Obama as a Muslim last year. A much more tarring smear, in my books, was one leveled against George W Bush before he first won office in 2000: That he had virtually never traveled abroad.

In fact, Bush had made at least short trips to countries in Europe, Asia and Africa. But when I first hear this rumour, I thought it was frightening. It represented a worldview so narrow as to be incomprehensible to me. (In the case of Sarah Palin, no smear was required. She really didn't obtain her first passport until 2006.)

My fears over candidate Bush were compounded when I heard that he hadn't learned the names of foreign leaders who were then at the very forefront of US foreign policy. (This was not mere rumour; he was called out in a pop quiz by a Boston television reporter.)

This was hugely symbolic to me: Here was a would-be leader who didn't even understand the nature of the role he sought. Unless you belong to an isolated jungle tribe, dealing with the outside world is practically the job description, something John F Kennedy got at when he said, "Domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us."

Cosmopolitanism is still considered damning by Washington political strategists, and evidently some voters. Witness another campaign attempt to tar Obama: He was accused of lacking patriotism for failing to wear an American flag lapel pin. Again, I was more frightened by the critics than by Obama himself.

Displays of nationalism do not reassure me; I'd rather know that a leader values all human lives equally. If we truly believe all humans are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights, then a person has those rights regardless of the accident of where they were born.

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum argued this at length and in detail in her celebrated 1994 essay Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism. The bottom line is, "we should recognise humanity wherever it occurs, and give its fundamental ingredients, reason and moral capacity, our first allegiance and respect."

Do I really think Obama is a cosmopolitan in this sense? I think, at least, that he recognises that the life of an Indonesian or Kenyan does not exist somewhere lower down in the moral hierarchy. That's important to me, because it suggests that he can deal cooperatively with foreigners -- who are, after all, essential to solving our most pressing problems. Pollution, crime and terrorism do not stop at the lines we humans have drawn on the sand.

Cosmopolitanism is, to be sure, difficult. It requires us to think for ourselves about what's right and wrong, rather than resort to a neat but morally arbitrary dividing line. It requires us to remember that America is not great because it's America, but because it practices democracy, upholds individual rights and strives to treat citizens equally under the law.

America also, at its best, encourages us to see beyond clan and tribe and race -- to be, in effect, cosmopolitans.

Obama can ditch the lapel pin and convert to Islam as far as I'm concerned. But I do hope he lives up to the cosmopolitan ideal.

Elisabeth Eaves, Forbes