by Frank Schnittger
Fri Nov 7th, 2008 at 07:45:26 AM EST
Cross-posted from Daily Kos and Booman. All recommendations appreciated.
Behind his winning rhetoric of Change, Obama has managed to maintain a remarkable opacity about what he would actually do as President, particularly when it comes to the USA's preeminent role in world affairs. Sure he will try to get troops out of Iraq sooner rather than later and redeploy some of those resources to Afghanistan. Sure he is more predisposed to multilateralism and diplomacy rather than starting more wars - for example with Iran. True, he won't be a climate change denier, a free market deregulater, a cold warrior, or a bombastic proponent of the "New American Century" where all other powers are supposed to supplicate to the shining city on a hill. But what will he actually do, and do his early appointments give us any clues?
The first thing to be said is that he brings a new world view to the office - one explicitly opposed to the neoconservative neo-imperialism so characteristic of the Bush regime. Obama's African heritage, his Kansas roots, his Indonesian schooling, and his Hawaiian youth all help to give him a sensitivity and appreciation of the world outside continental USA. His actual foreign policy experience may not be much greater than Sarah Palin's, but at least he doesn't believe that living next to Russia and Canada constitutes a qualification for high office.
When the world outside America listened to Bush they were instinctively distrustful, and that included many people ideologically predisposed to be pro-American. Only those elites with a vested interest in doing business with Official America or adopting neo-conservative, market deregulation ideologies in their own countries treated him with any respect. Friends and foes alike were bemused that such a great power could be dominated by such small minds. The USA's global political influence is now far smaller than its economic and military strength might otherwise enable.
Obama's eloquence harks back to an earlier time, a time of Martin Luther King, the Kennedys, Bob Dylan, and Noam Chomsky, when America really was the leader of a world striving to be free. But now we live in a new world, post Berlin Wall, post Wall Street meltdown, where old empires have been torn down. A world made up of the resurgent powers of Japan, China, India, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, Brazil, Venezuela and the European Union will never accept Global domination by one or two powers again. American interest will be seen as just that - American interests - and for America to become a predominant player on the world stage again it will have to identify and act on Global interests rather than on any self-serving definitions of Democracy or "War on Terror" which were never much more than a cloak for its own imperial ambitions.
So what is Obama's world view, and can we infer any greater vision for a new world order? Does he support a greater role for global regulatory organisations - the UN, WTO, World Bank, IMF, and the International Court of Justice? Will Americans become subject to International Law for War crimes, genocide, human rights violations, torture, and cluster bomb deployment against civilians? Will Obama drive the conclusion of a successor Treaty to Kyoto, will Nuclear Proliferation Control Treaties apply to Israel as well as Iran? Will Obama support, rather than seek to undermine the further development of the European Union?
Progress on all these fronts involves accepting that American interests - whilst valid in their own sphere - do not always trump global interests, and that dealing with Global problems sometimes involves some subordination of National interest - however large - to the greater good of the World as a whole. Other nations understand this. The EU is explicitly about surrendering and pooling some National Sovereignty so that greater problems. problems which cannot be solved at a purely national level - can be more effectively addressed.
There has been a lot of debate in the US Presidential election as to whether the US is a centre right or a centre left nation. No one seems to be asking the rather obvious question: centre left or right of what? What is the Centre? Is it the centre of where the USA has been since the Reagan revolution post 1980? Is it the centre of one pole in a Cold war dominated bipolar world order? Or is it the centre of the World as a whole? Where is that centre - and does any such concept make any sense at all?
Certainly if you take "Old Europe" as the centre, the USA has been to the far right ever since Reagan - with support for Apartheid, unilateral military interventions, uncontrolled globalisation, and a systematic undermining of multilateral institutions like the UN and related conventions the norm. The notion was that it was economics in the form of global corporations dominating free markets, rather than politics, in the form of states and multinational organisations and conventions which should be the dominant actors on the world stage. But Europe, no more than the USA, is no longer at the centre of World political gravity or action.
But let us be clear, for a while this strategy appeared to work. World aggregate economic growth has been almost unprecedented in recent times, and relatively unregulated globalisation has enabled an unprecedented transfer of capital, production, natural resources, technology, knowledge, expertise, tourism and culture throughout the world. But it has also exacerbated the development of enormous geographic and social inequalities in the world. Africa has become something of a developmental black hole whilst China, India and the middle and far east have prospered. Europe and the US have only maintained their dominance of the globalisation process by the use of increasingly sophisticated branding, marketing, intellectual property and financial engineering Ponzi schemes which increasingly substituted apparent or affective value for the intrinsic value of the products being created.
What is happening now is the world wide realisation that the old empires have no clothes. That formerly "third world" countries can produce products just as good if not better at far cheaper cost. That they can control their own oil and mineral resources and keep the profits at home. That there is simply no comparison between the value to be had in a five star hotel in Bali or New York. So a lot of what has been happening in the recent global realignment is just a re-balancing of fair values and economic justice. Why should workers in China earn so much less than their counterparts in the "West"?
There is nothing that Obama can do to change this. Creating barriers to globalisation now is akin to locking the stable doors long after the horses have bolted. Capital, production, technology, resources and the consequences of resource depletion are global now. Obama is smart enough to know all this, but do the American people realise all this? Was there any indication, in the Presidential campaign, that either side were ready to embrace a world order where the USA is no longer the preeminent player, economically, politically, or even militarily?
Of course every nation indulges in a little chauvinistic nationalism at election time - be it "Deutschland über alles" or "America, the greatest nation in the world". But does even the American left understand the degree to which the world has changed? A world where the US$ is no longer the currency of last resort, where Wall Street is no longer the preeminent source of global capital, where American brands no longer represent the ultimate in desirability, where American courts can no longer set aside European patents with impunity, where American war criminals risk prosecution if they travel abroad? Is even the American left ready to countenance the loss of National Sovereignty which may be required to truly tackle global problems and where it will be UN rather than US forces which deal with particularly intransigent dictatorships and human rights violations abroad?
So far Obama has given little indication that he understands or is willing and able to lead America into a realisation and acceptance of these new realities. His approach to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, for instance, seems little different to the neoconservatives. With the appointment of Rahm Israel Emanuel as Chief of Staff, and the emergence of Jewish American leaders in both House and Senate we could have an even more entrenched approach to what has been the single most difficult and incendiary problem in world affairs. On the other hand, mainstream Jewish Americans have often been more realistic on that issue that the more ideological driven Christian Zionist and Neoconservative Right in the US.
There are also other, more hopeful indicators that Obama will operate in a totally different paradigm when it comes to foreign policy. He will, for instance, close Guantanamo and hopefully reaffirm the USA's commitment to the UN Geneva Conventions on Torture. His appointment of Samantha Power as a senior foreign policy adviser also indicates a real concern with human rights, genocide, and the consequence of war crimes. Whether she gets a senior appointment in his Administration is, of course, an entirely different matter.
We will know there has been a sea change in American attitudes when we see the first US defendant charged with torture or war crimes before the International Court of Justice. I will not be holding my breath. Obama saw what happened to Carter when he appeared weak on the world stage. But it was not Carter who was weak, it was the US illusion that it is still possible to act unilaterally in a complex and shrinking global world order where global resources of oil and credit have peaked, and where you have to accept a pooling of Sovereignty or else face increasing wars with diminishing returns in an attempt to impose your will on others.
However Obama does have an opportunity to become a truly global leader. The world is not exactly overflowing with great leaders right now. South Africa is declining after its halcyon days under Mandela. There is no Gorbachev in Russia or visionary leader in Europe. China is focused on China and Japan on Japan. There has been a turning inwards in political cultures as the economic crisis undermines internal political stability.
Obama could become the truly preeminent Global leader of our age, but only if he has the strength, leadership and vision to recognise that America is not diminished by being of greater service to the world as whole. America once had that vision and that visionary - who helped to end a huge economic crisis and a World War. His name was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. His successors have been political pygmies by comparison and have diminished both the USA and the World. I hope Obama has the ambition to be not just a good President, but a truly great world leader. The idealism of the American people deserves no less.