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A Nobel for a post-American president

By Rich Benjamin, Special to CNN
  • Rich Benjamin: Nobel signals hope for deeds to come, approval of cosmopolitanism
  • He says Obama's varied background makes him first post-American president
  • He notes tension between post- and patriot-Americans over U.S. world status
  • Benjamin: To unite nation, Obama must deliver on Nobel's promise

Editor's note: Rich Benjamin is the author of "Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America." He is a senior fellow at Demos, a nonpartisan, domestic and international think tank. He holds a bachelor's degree from Wesleyan University and a doctorate from Stanford.

New York (CNN) -- This year's Nobel Peace Prize delivered a challenge that must be particularly familiar and vexing to our loquacious president: to not just give a good speech, but to produce results.

By awarding President Obama the Nobel Peace Prize, the Nobel committee is championing a "post-American" outlook that the president personifies. Its gamble stakes the prize's prestige on the hopes that its ennobled recipient will then achieve real diplomatic gains.

The committee insists that the medal acknowledges the president's achievements. But if you read between the lines, it is really applauding a sensibility: American cosmopolitanism.

With his knockabout childhood and knowledge of Indonesian, language to the most populous Muslim-majority nation in the world, Obama is this nation's first post-American president.

"If you can tell people, 'We have a president in the White House who still has a grandmother living in a hut on the shores of Lake Victoria and has a sister who's half-Indonesian, married to a Chinese-Canadian,' then they're going to think that he may have a better sense of what's going on in our lives and in our country," Obama once mused.

Video: Obama receives Nobel Prize

Post-American does not mean the president is un-American or anti-American. Nor does it mean Obama is equivocal to American interests. It simply means Obama's commitment to global citizenship is deeply personal and political.

Still, social and political debates rage in the U.S. between patriotism and cosmopolitanism, between what I call patriot-Americans and post-Americans.

Patriot-Americans, in this view, inhabit a more traditional, conservative America, believing in a singular bond and duty to their nation and its citizens before anything or anyone else. For patriot-Americans, a nation's borders have sentimental and nationalist value.

Post-Americans, meanwhile, are post-national. They see themselves as citizens of the world, their political outlook, cultural tastes and civic commitment often no more aligned with an American's than a Spaniard's or a Singaporean's.

To be sure, most Americans don't share the president's worldly sensibility. Only 30 percent of Americans consider themselves "more of a global citizen than an American citizen," according to "Modern Communities," a 2007 marketing study conducted by the GfK Group, the world's fifth-largest market research company.

And yet, the post-American vision holds that its values are not contrary to being American. In fact, American identity is predicated on cosmopolitan roots. Precisely because Americans come from every nation conceivable, it behooves us to safeguard a cosmopolitan outlook. Or, as Obama once said, "In no other country on Earth is my story even possible."

"The burdens of global citizenship continue to bind us together," Obama told the crowds that greeted him in Berlin, Germany, last year. And he invoked his own roots in his Cairo, Egypt, speech to Muslim nations last June, a speech credited by some for helping to spark the student protests in Iran around its presidential election.

It was this changing dynamic that the committee praised in its award citation: "Obama has as President created a new climate in international politics. Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play."

But some Americans worry that the nation's power and status in the world are being neutered. Obama's brand of open diplomacy, according to some patriot-Americans, succors lurking danger and leaves the nation vulnerable to another terrorist attack, even as it mishandles the war in Afghanistan.

They contend, moreover, that an opaque Russia, a truculent Iran, a fickle China and a roaring India are consolidating geopolitical and military power at America's expense. Small wonder that patriot-Americans are particularly piqued by this year's prize.

Responding to the news of his award, Obama declared it less a recognition of his accomplishments than "an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations held by people in all nations."

To date, his words tender more punch than his deeds; the prize demands more from the recipient than striking the right applause lines.

America strains under foreign creditors, fights two prolonged global wars and recalibrates itself after a triumphant American Century. We stare a post-American century in the face.

But who could ever have predicted this week's ceremony, one that cheerleads a sensibility -- post-Americanism -- not an achievement?

Some marvel at, others disdain, this precedent of promoting a means (post-American cooperation) more than an end (a peace accord, a dissident movement, a fallen wall).

To win over camps, Obama's near-future actions in Afghanistan, the West Bank and North Korea must speak more loudly than his Nobel speech this week.