"Contrary to the rumors you have heard, I was not born in a manger," then-Senator Barack Obama joked in the fall of 2008. "I was actually born on Krypton and sent here by my father, Jor-El, to save the planet Earth," he continued, referring to the iconic origin story of Superman, the first modern superhero.
Nearly six years later, Obama is the most powerful man on the planet, commanding history's most advanced military, and steering the world's largest economy. But much like Superman, Obama — and by extension the United States — is frequently faced with the paradoxical limits that come with its superpower.
On Friday, the U.S. sought to reassure its allies that it was moving swiftly to respond to Russia sending another ten tanks across the Ukraine border. The previous day, Obama stood at the White House Briefing Room's podium to pledge further military support for the beleaguered Iraqi army against the militants allied with the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). The day before that, the U.S. promised more support for the Central African Republic, where violence continues to rage unchecked between Christian and Muslim communities.
The United States, as the documents revealed last year by Edward Snowden showed, has for years been developing the ability to see and hear, if not everything, a massive percentage of the world's total communications. Its satellites orbit the planet, capable of capturing troop movements, burning villages, fleeing refugees. But though it may try, its ability to respond to every one of those calls for help remains beyond its reach.
In a recent storyline, Superman returns to his home city, Metropolis, after an extended absence. A woman in the gathered crowd actually slaps the hero, demanding why he was unable to spot her husband's cancer with his X-ray vision, and prevent his death. When a nearby reporter chides her, noting that even Superman can't be everywhere at once, the woman in her anguish laments: "But you were nowhere."
Though his powers have fluctuated wildly over the years, the Man of Steel is always depicted as having in his arsenal both super-hearing and super-vision. Depending on the writer's view of just how his powers work, the constant barrage of screams for help constantly assault Superman's sensitive ears, leaving him forced to shut them out or be driven insane.
So too the U.S. finds itself with a glut of information, but lacking the ability to take on so many of the world's crises, no matter how heart-wrenching the pleas or gut-wrenching the sight of the dead stacked together may be. It's just outside its ability to solve all of the world's problems at once.
There's also the problem that comes with being as physically powerful as Superman. There are few villains out there who require his full strength to handle, meaning he has to constantly fret about accidentally killing them. "I feel like I live in a World of Cardboard," a version of the character once said, "always taking care not to break something, to break someone. Never allowing myself to lose control even for a moment or someone could die." Superman delivered this speech before finally unleashing his full ability to defeat the villain threatening the world, seeing that his opponent could actually handle the assault.
But as seen — to many fans' concern — in his most recent film incarnation Man of Steel, the collateral damage around Superman can be devastating when he cuts loose. The United States frequently finds itself facing the same dilemma. Its aircraft can deliver payloads capable of wiping out city blocks at a time. It possesses the atom bomb. Should it actually channel all of its resources against a challenge, as in World War II, the sheer manpower and economic might of the U.S. could defeat almost any conceivable foe. But only if it's willing to pay the cost — both economically and in terms of the lives we'll have taken and lost in the process.
It's this problem we currently see in confronting Russia. On paper, the United States could win any war with Russia over Ukraine. But would it be worth it?
For Kal-El, the answer is often "no." But that's not a surprise. Among his many monikers, Superman is often referred to as "The Big Blue Boy Scout." For decades, Superman has been seen as the guiding compass for morality in the DC universe. From the beginning, he has been described as fighting for "truth, justice, and the American way." If he believes an action is just, the vast majority of the time he is proven right.
But despite his best intentions, there are always those who fear him, such as his archnemesis Lex Luthor. In most versions of the character, Luthor is convinced that Superman is a threat to humanity, a possible dictator-in-the-making, and not to be trusted. Though Luthor is in the minority, there have been times when he's managed to convince the public that Superman has gone rogue and must be stopped.
While the U.S. can't be said to have the same track record of moral judgment as Superman, there's still the fact that being the most powerful in the world makes people naturally suspicious of your motives. If it intervenes in Iraq's latest crisis, the U.S.'s intention will be to stop ISIS as a service to the region and the world. That likely won't stop the calls, however, of "American tyranny" and suspicious whispers about oil and conquest.
These comparisons leave us with some lessons that the United States can draw. The first, that even if it did decide to try to take on all the world's ills — and succeed — there would always be those who resented the U.S. and tried to break free. In the classic 'what if?' series Red Son, instead of landing outside of Smallville, KS, Kal-El's rocket lands in the Soviet Union. There Superman, an adopted son of Stalin, eventually grows up to spread his rule across most of there world as a benevolent dictator, ending famines and strife for most of humanity. But in doing so, he eventually realizes that he's stripped the world of its free will and so retreats to allow humanity to decide its own fate.
That said, not to borrow too heavily from the thesis of Robert Kagan's recent essay "Superpowers Don't Get to Retire," the U.S. isn't in a place where it can cut off from the world entirely. There is no Fortress of Solitude in which it can hide. Nor can it just fly off into space for awhile. The world needs it and it needs the world.
But that doesn't mean it has to go alone. Since its first incarnation in 1960, Superman has been able to rely on the help of members of the Justice League when things get rough. Though no one member is nearly as powerful as Superman, together they boost him, and drawing on each other's strengths they've saved the world (and the universe). When facing down threats around the world, it's tempting to think that the mighty United States can take them all on alone, but it will always need allies and alliances — be they bilateral team-ups or organizations like NATO or the United Nations — to help it get there.
Obama is a fellow nerd. As a kindred spirit, I hope he turns to the comics books and sci-fi of his past to find solace. I like to imagine him sitting at the Resolute Desk, thinking back to his 2008 joke, wishing that he really were the Man of Steel. But if he understands the character at all, he knows that even being the Last Son of Krypton wouldn't grant him the power to fix all of the world's ills — no Kryptonite required.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- Beware of Splenda: The backlash against artificial sugars
- The real story behind Deliver Us From Evil
- Stop making fun of philosophy and read some philosophy
- Sorry, we will not all be having sex with robots in the future
- 6 things the happiest families all have in common
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- How to live a long life, according to science
- What is Molly? Everything you need to know about the party drug
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
Subscribe to the Week