A Superman Approach to Foreign Policy

Ezra Klein of the Washington Post today compared President Obama’s Nobel Peace Price acceptance speech to a metaphor Klein had made early last year while at The American Prospect — “A Superman approach to foreign policy” — life ideally imitating art imitating life.

Superman and Captain America were superheroes of an odd sort: tremendously powerful beings whose primary struggle was often to follow the self-imposed rules and strictures that lent their power a moral legitimacy. Neither allowed themselves to kill, and both sought to work within the law. Given their strength, either could have sought world domination, and even if they didn’t, they could have been viewed with deep suspicion and even hatred by those who were convinced that they one day would seek world domination. It was only by following ostentatiously strict moral codes that they could legitimize their power and thus exist cooperatively with a world that had every right to fear them. Indeed, soon enough, both were forming communities of like-minded super beings (The Justice League for Superman, the Avengers for Captain America) and generally operating much like, well, the nation that birthed them. As Spiderman — a later hero who, like so many heroes, bought into the idea that rules and restraint separated the good guys from the bad guys — liked to say, “with great power comes great responsibility.”

Superhero deviation from that moral code typically comes with an awareness of the moral implications — characters like Wolverine and the Punisher, who can rationalize their violence, still carry guilt with them and a sense of their own moral failings. They aren’t presented as the only ones in the Marvel Universe who have the guts and the courage to do what’s right.

Only in the real world are actions like “Weighing the consequences” and “forcing oneself to acknowledge the rights and freedoms of others, even when that’s inconvenient” considered “taking the easy way out,” while those who use their disproportionate power to dominate others are considered the real tough guys.

UPDATE: And here is The Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency from Matthew Yglesias via Brendan Nyhan. Good stuff.