You are here
The Text(ure) of the World in Presidential Rhetoric
Marshall McLuhan’s dream of a global village has literally come true as miracle has followed upon miracle—from a television in every home in the 1950s, to the launching of the first communications satellite in the 1960s, to the introduction of cable TV in the 1970s, the rise of personal computers in the 1980s, the Internet in the 1990s, and social media in the 2000s. But with the introduction of each new technology, one thing has always been true—our technological capacities have always run ahead of our inventional capabilities or, to put it another way, our technologies have always run ahead of our texts.
As scholars of human communication we are all concerned with texts of one sort or another, whether we study those texts under the rubric of interpersonal communication, group and organizational processes, public communication, or the various forms of mediated, material, or embodied texts. In our field virtually anything can be a text and all texts, when considered in combination and across time and space, form textures—the ways in which our world appears to us, the way it is designed, the way it feels. Texts create textures.
This afternoon, I want to talk about one kind of text—presidential rhetoric—and I want to talk about it within one particular context—the world at large. For beyond the presidential rhetoric that we usually attend to—inaugurals, state of the union addresses, campaign discourses and debates—there is another that is equally important: What the President of the United States says when he (and someday she) goes abroad to address foreign audiences. What are the texts that presidents use and what kind of texture do these texts create?
Before I try to answer that question, I should note that the first 25 presidents never left the shores of the continental United States. The first president to make an official diplomatic trip overseas was Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. He went by ship. Indeed all foreign presidential travel from 1906-1943 was by ship, and there wasn’t very much of it. Foreign travel and speechmaking as an instrument of American diplomacy is a largely post-World War II phenomenon. In fact, if we bracket travel to summit meetings, where the communication is largely private, and look for the moment when presidential foreign travel was made for public purposes using public rhetoric, we have to come all the way up to 1959, when Dwight Eisenhower made his famous world tour of 11 countries on three continents.
Ike’s tour was, of course, undertaken in the midst of an ongoing Cold War, and much of the motivation for the tour was the need to present a positive public image of the United States as a friend and potential benefactor to those nations. When we think of the texture of the 1950s and 60s, we think of a world divided, and texts such as Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” with its stark depiction of the differences between the free world and communism. But there’s another part of JFK’s speech that we sometimes forget. He also said to the 400,000 Germans gathered before him and to the world: “You live in a defended island of freedom, but your life is part of the main. So let me ask you, as I close, to lift your eyes beyond the dangers of today to the hopes of tomorrow, beyond the freedom merely of this city of Berlin or your country of Germany to the advance of freedom everywhere, beyond the wall to the day of peace with justice, beyond yourselves and ourselves to all mankind.”
For more than a quarter century after JFK’s speech, the texture of the world would be defined by the Cold War. It was still so defined in 1987, when another American president went to Berlin and echoed what JFK had said so many years before: “As long as this gate is closed, as long as this scar of a wall is permitted to stand, it is not the German question alone that remains open, but the question of freedom for all mankind.” The text of President Reagan’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate was part of the administration’s forward strategy of freedom—to press for freedom at every moment, at every opportunity, everywhere. An examination of Reagan’s texts directed to foreign audiences during this crucial period from 1987-1989 reveals three textual strategies—1) the evangelization of freedom in all its dimensions—freedom to think and publish, freedom to associate and organize, freedom to form political parties, freedom to adopt market economic policies, freedom to travel, freedom to trade, and freedom to worship; 2) the positioning of these freedoms as arising from universal standards of human rights; and 3) the articulation of a belief in divine providence and human destiny—a belief that both God and history are moving in the direction of freedom and that such movement is, in fact, inevitable; it is destined to come about.
Reagan’s texts ruptured the texture of the Cold War by articulating ideas and images that intentionally called into question that texture. Constantly, he preached freedom. To the Canadian Parliament, he said: “Freedom works. The democratic freedoms that secure the God-given rights of man, and the economic freedoms that open the door to prosperity—they are the hope and, we trust, the destiny of mankind.” To the students at Moscow State University, he proclaimed: “Freedom is the recognition that no single person, no single authority or government has a monopoly on the truth, but that every individual life is infinitely precious, that every one of us put on this world has been put there for a reason and has something to offer.” To the citizens of Western Europe, he spoke of “fundamental freedoms: freedom of religion, freedom of thought and expression, freedom of the press, and freedom of movement. Only when these freedoms are observed can the greatest resource of any nation—the creativity, ideas, and initiative of its individual citizens—prosper and grow.”
Repeatedly, and around the globe, Reagan preached freedom, but he did so always within the context of universal human rights. In a recent article, Buddy Howell has shown how Reagan used the argument from human rights in his summitry with the Soviets; but Reagan used it in his public rhetoric as well. In his broadcast to the citizens of Western Europe, Reagan said: “Our interchange with the Soviets has a basis; it is not neutral or value-free. This basis is not just a matter of American standards; they are moral standards, the standards of Western civilization itself.” Speaking to dissidents in Moscow, Reagan reminded his listeners that “the basic standards that the Soviet Union agreed to almost 13 years ago in the Helsinki accords, or a generation ago in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, still need to be met.” Repeatedly, Reagan put those freedoms which he preached into the context of the universal human rights that all civilized nations recognized and respected.
But more than this, Reagan spoke as though these rights had a telos—an end—that was destined to be fulfilled. Although he admitted that he didn’t know the exact timeline, Reagan spoke as though the final victory of freedom around the world was assured. He told the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London, “Our faith is in a higher law ... humanity was meant not to be dishonored by the all-powerful state, but to live in the image and likeness of Him who made us.” Reagan said that he had a “belief that all of history is such a pilgrimage and that our Maker, while never denying us free will, does over time guide us with a wise and provident hand, giving direction to history and slowly bringing good from evil—leading us ever so slowly but ever so relentlessly and lovingly to a moment when the will of man and God are as one again.”
Preach freedom. Put it within a universal context. And assure the audience that in the end freedom will prevail, not because it is an American idea, but because it is the very will of God moving in human history. Freedom is the destiny of the world. Reagan’s texts challenged the texture of the world as it then existed. Within two years of the Brandenburg Gate speech, the Berlin Wall fell; within four years, the Soviet Union ended up on the ash heap of history. The texture of the world was changing. According to international relations scholar Larry Diamond, there were 71 electoral democracies in 1987 when Reagan gave his speech at the Brandenburg Gate. By 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, there were 91. Today, there are 104. It is, of course, impossible to make a direct cause-and-effect connection between a single factor such as presidential rhetoric and something as complex as changes in the form of government. Many other factors were at work. But the fact remains that the rhetorical texts of American presidents, speaking to foreign audiences on foreign soil, have held forth a vision that has, in large measure, been realized over the course of the past 25 years, and, in fact, is still in the process of being realized today in places such as Tunisia, Libya, Burma, and Egypt.
That presidential vision expanded under the watch of George H. W. Bush who was both the last Cold War president and the first post-Cold War president. As might be expected, a constant theme in his texts was transition or change. Bush 41 extended the textural changes taking place in the world by utilizing three rhetorical strategies of his own. First, he adopted the metaphor of the journey to encompass the transition from the Cold War to the post-Cold War world. It was an apt metaphor, for it emphasized the step-by-step process of moving from one texture through transitional textures and ultimately arriving at the new texture characterized by freedom and democracy. Second, he championed two new concepts—the “commonwealth of freedom” and “a new world order”—the first of which was aimed at Europe and the second of which embraced the entire world. Each of these concepts allowed Bush to articulate his vision of what the texture of a post-Cold War world would look and feel like. Third, Bush replaced the Cold War rhetoric of military confrontation (and its diplomatic counterpart “containment”) with the post-Cold War rhetoric of economic competition (and its diplomatic counterpart “prosperity”).
Bush spoke of a “continent of revolutionary change” where “new ideas are on the march.” We were, he said, experiencing a “grand turn in the course of history,” “a fundamental change in perspective,” and “a time of bright promise, of historic transition.” Bush imaged “this decisive moment” as one when “one shared journey ends and another begins.” “Together we’ve embarked on a journey,” he proclaimed, because “nothing can stop an idea whose time has come.”
Bush imaged this journey as a pathway leading to a “new commonwealth of freedom.”
Earlier commonwealths had been based on language, or geography, or governmental systems, but this commonwealth would be based on a set of ideas grounded in democratic governance and free market economics. It would start with Europe, a “Europe whole and free,” but soon encompass the entire globe. As Bush told the people of the Netherlands, “We must work together toward the day when all of Europe, East and West, is free of discord, free of division; a day when people in every city and every town across this continent knows the freedom that we enjoy.” “Every new nation that joins the commonwealth of freedom,” Bush told his audience in Prague, “advances us one step closer to a new world order, a world in which the use of force gives way to a shared respect for the rule of law.” Bush’s hope, as he told the Brazilian Congress, was nothing less than “to create the first fully democratic hemisphere in the history of mankind, the first hemisphere devoted to the democratic ideal—to unleash the power of free peoples, free elections, and free markets.” “The new world we seek,” said Bush, “is a commonwealth of free nations working in concert, a world where more and more nations enter a widening circle of freedom.”
To bring about this new world order, Bush identified several principles of implementation, the chief of which was “a world in which military confrontation is being pushed aside by constructive economic competition, a world in which nations struggle to build and perfect democracy. Although we have no road map to guide us through this world,” Bush observed, “we have a sure compass in principles.” And what were those principles? Submitting “to the will of the people in free elections.” Forming a “representative government.” Welcoming “the unfettered competition of ideas.” Supporting the “forces of freedom and reform.” Recognizing the “rights of man,” rights that are, said Bush, “universal.” Forging “stronger social, cultural, and economic ties.” Creating a “free trade system.” Reducing “trade barriers.” And what is the goal of such implementation? To “build an order in which all nations enjoy prosperity, democracy, and peace” and to do it in such a way as “to make democratic change irreversible.”
Whereas the dominant strategy of the Cold War world was to contain—to hold within boundaries—the dominant strategy of the post-Cold War world would be expansion—the breaking of boundaries, whether economic, political, social, cultural, or diplomatic. President Clinton’s project of “democratic enlargement” would build on the foundations laid by Reagan and Bush. Clinton urged the French National Assembly “to unite our people around the opportunities of peace, as those who went before us united against the dangers of war.” To secure this peace and “seize challenging and exciting opportunities,” Clinton backed a host of bilateral and multilateral institutions the creation or expansion of which was intended to bind established and emerging democracies together in an unbreakable chain of interlocking responsibilities. As international relations scholar John Ikenberry notes:
... during the 1990s, the United States pursued an institution-building agenda. Across security and economic areas, the United States sought to build and expand regional and global institutions. NATO expansion and the creation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), and the World Trade Association (WTO) were elements of this agenda. ... the United States employed institutions as a mechanism to lock in other states to desired policy orientations.
As Clinton told the French Assembly: “We now must pursue a shared strategy, to secure the peace of a broader Europe and its prosperity. That strategy depends upon integrating the entire continent through three sets of bonds: first, security cooperation; second, market economics; and third, democracy.” The goal, as he told the Polish Parliament, was to create “a continent where democracy and free markets know no borders.” What started primarily as a strategy for uniting Europe soon became a strategy for binding the entire world to what American presidents have repeatedly called universal principles of order.
The watchword of this strategy for Clinton was “cooperation.” By cooperating in the creation and maintenance of security, economic, and political institutions, these states would be advancing their own national interests while at the same time building an international order along lines drawn up by the United States of America. As Clinton told workers in Belfast, “the barriers of the cold war are giving way to a global village where communication and cooperation are the order of the day.”
But as Clinton pursued cooperation, he soon found that the texture of the world, so long defined by ideology and the East-West divide, was now starting to be defined by differences within countries and regions, differences of language, culture, religion, education, and opportunity. Repeatedly, he pleaded for peoples to transcend their surface differences and find their unity in a common humanity. “We have more in common with people who appear on the surface to be different from us than most of us know,” he told people in Northern Ireland. “We can draw strength from the joining of different peoples,” he assured the citizens of Venezuela. Those countries that will fare best in this new global economy, said Clinton, are those who have “the globe inside their borders.”
“We live in a time of extraordinary opportunity,” Clinton said to business leaders in Buenos Aires. “Revolutions in technology, information, and communications bring our people and our nations closer than ever before, opening new possibilities. . . . we must seize the opportunities. . . . We have to make our common commitment to peace and freedom, to prosperity and democracy, and we have to make it irreversible.”
These are the texts and textual strategies that took us from the end of the Cold War to the dawn of the 21st century. They mediated the texture of our world even as they were in the process of forming new textures, new designs, new experiences of what it means to be a citizen, not only of a particular country, but of an interlocked, integrated, and, as Reagan, Bush, and Clinton all reminded us, “irreversible” world order. And in the main, I think the texts and the textures they have helped to create have been laudable. Yes, they were undertaken, in part, to maintain American global hegemony; yes, they benefitted American businesses; yes, they spread free market capitalism across the globe. But they also increased prosperity in every cooperating country; they have raised the standard of living in most countries; they have reduced poverty and child mortality; they have spread a democratic peace not only to the emerging democracies of central-east Europe, but have fed the thirst for democratic change in such unlikely places as Libya, and Burma, and Egypt.
Perhaps President Obama said it best: “the longing for freedom and human dignity is not English or American, or Western, it is universal, and it beats in every human heart.” For the past 25 years our presidents have tried to create a new texture for our world. They have done so, in part, through presidential rhetoric directed to foreign audiences. They have done so in an attempt to share with those audiences an American vision for a new world texture, a world characterized by terms such as “cooperation,” “partnership,” “interconnected,” “interdependent,” and “integrated.”
President Obama’s favorite term is “partnership.” He has said that he seeks “partners around the globe,” that all countries’ interests are “best advanced in partnership,” and that he wants “partners in building the capacity for transformational change.” He has acknowledged that in times past America has not always treated other states as partners and in Cairo he noted that “any world order that tries to elevate one nation or one group of people over another will inevitably fail.” In so speaking, he has been criticized by some for failing to articulate a particular version of American Exceptionalism, one that conflates exceptionalism with manifest destiny. Obama does believe in an American Exceptionalism, but it is of a different sort. It is an exceptionalism that sees strength in diversity, not uniformity. It is an exceptionalism that identifies American greatness not in those things that are peculiar to America, but in those things that are universal within the American creed. As he said in London: “the true source of our influence hasn’t just been the size of our economies or the reach of our militaries or the land that we’ve claimed. It has been the values that we must never waver in defending around the world, the idea that all beings are endowed by their Creator with certain rights that cannot be denied.”
Obama’s texts are populated with phrases such as “our interconnected world,” “our destiny is shared,” “every nation is now inextricably linked,” and “we all rise and fall together.” The texture he paints with his words is one of unity within diversity. He holds that “the boundaries between people are overwhelmed by our connections.” He expresses “a universal desire to leave our children a world more prosperous and peaceful.” And he pledges that “America will always be a voice for those aspirations that are universal.”
In so speaking, Obama textualizes a rhetorical vision. And by giving that vision textual form, he helps to transform the texture of the world as it currently exists. Following in the rhetorical footsteps of his predecessors, the president imagines a world that does not yet fully exist but whose broad contours and future existence are coming into being even as he speaks. As he promotes interconnections and interdependence, and as he acts to institutionalize the instruments of that interdependence in the form of treaties, international organizations, bilateral and multilateral relationships, security arrangements, economic and trade associations, and cultural exchanges, he gives substance to his words. Speaking in Santiago, Chile, Obama captured the substance of his vision in one sentence: “Security for our citizens, trade and development that creates jobs, prosperity and a clean energy future, standing up for democracy and human rights—these are the partnerships that we can forge together, here in the Americas but also around the world.”
The texture of our world has changed mightily over the last 25 years. What American presidents have said to foreign audiences has anticipated that change, helped to bring it about, and continues to hold out a clear vision of world community—a community grounded in democratic principles and governance, committed to free market economics and free trade, prioritizing economic competition over military confrontation, and building a shared prosperity that crosses borders, languages, and cultures. Such a vision rhetorically constitutes Americans as active participants and builders of global community.
It constitutes the United States as a partner for peace and prosperity. And it constitutes our world as a complex texture of social, political, economic, security, and diplomatic relationships. If the vision someday comes to full fruition, those relationships will be so strong that the texture of our world will resemble a beautiful quilt—one made of different hues, complex patterns, careful stitching, and multiple parts, all joined into one grand design. To rend the texture of such an interconnected world would be far more difficult than it was to tear the fabric of human community in the 20th century, making the 21st century a time both of hope and world-changing possibility. And it all starts with our texts. Person to person. Group to group. Nation to nation. If our texts can keep pace with our technologies, the texture of the world will continue to change for the better. And a child born today may look back 60 years from now and say, “Well, those folks back in 2012 had some strange sounding technologies—Facebook and Twitter (whatever those were)—but the world they created through their ideas of interconnection, integration, and interdependence bequeathed to us a seamlessly textured world, a world where cooperation and human community became everyday realities.”