The Common Good

The Meaning of America: President Obama's Address to Parliament

Biblical wisdom teaches: "it has not yet been revealed what we shall be." Such is the case with every child, every grandchild, and great grandchild -- those we know and those we will never meet. In his address before the Parliament of the United Kingdom delivered in Westminster Hall, President Obama, the first American president to speak in this place, spoke about the moral progress and the human possibilities that his own story represents:

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"In a world which will only grow smaller and more interconnected, the example of our two nations says it is possible for people to be united by their ideals, instead of divided by their differences; that it's possible for hearts to change and old hatreds to pass; that it's possible for sons and daughters of former colonies to sit here as members of this great Parliament, and for the grandson of a Kenyan who served as a cook in the British Army to stand before you as President of the United States."

The meaning of America and of the United Kingdom is the vast horizon of possibilities for people who live in societies governed by democracy and the rule of law.

In his address, President Obama indicated that both the United States and the United Kingdom are defined by their ideals: "Unlike most countries in the world, we do not define citizenship based on race or ethnicity. Being American or British is not about belonging to a certain group; it's about believing in a certain set of ideals -- the rights of individuals, the rule of law."

These ideals are the reason for the continued importance of American and British leadership in the world. President Obama made it clear that the rise of China, India, and Brazil is not a threat to the powers of the West. This speech was a definite step away from a zero-sum analysis of foreign and economic policy. This is an example of the moral idea that what is good is good for everyone. Once again the president recognized a universal "longing for freedom and human dignity." It is this universal longing that the United States supports.

Moreover, he addressed the charge of hypocrisy leveled against the West for inconsistency in foreign policy when it seems that economic and geostrategic interests trump our ideals regarding human rights. President Obama said:

"But we must also insist that we reject as false the choice between our interests and our ideals; between stability and democracy. For our idealism is rooted in the realities of history -- that repression offers only the false promise of stability, that societies are more successful when their citizens are free, and that democracies are the closest allies we have."

The goal is a world that is "more peaceful, more prosperous, and more just." I say: The goal is also to shape a world where every child can reach his or her full potential. This means that we the people of the United States ought to see ourselves as a nation that spends its money on providing the basic human need of its citizens -- health care, education, employment and decent housing. We ought to insist that no one living in this country or in any country in the world live in hunger.

President Obama is right to think about ways that the United States and other wealthy nations can help Egypt, Tunisia and other countries economically. A strong economy will help sustain these new democracies. Thus, American means peacemaking through the ploughshare and not through the sword.

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