Obama: the change Asia needs?

By Chandran Nair
Financial Times

This comment by Chandran Nair is published on FT.com, October 2 2008.

The rest of the world may not be voting, but even to the most casual observer, it is already widely assumed by commentators that most non-Americans would prefer Barack Obama to win.

Especially since becoming the Democratic Party’s candidate, the international media has been filled with commentaries suggesting it is not just Europeans who see Mr Obama as the candidate of change – but also most Asians, Africans and Latin Americans.

Given the foreign policy views of John McCain, the Republican candidate, this assumption is not surprising. Mr McCain’s continued support for the war in Iraq, and the constant emphasis on his experience in Vietnam – another war where US reliance on military might to change hearts and minds ended in failure – impress few outside America.

But it is also hubris: yet another example of how too many commentators lazily assume that their vision of a United States as ultimately a force for good in the world – whatever its short-term failings – is shared by others.

What is going on is easy to explain. After George W. Bush’s two terms as president, the world’s chattering classes want to see their faith in the American dream and its supposed self-correcting democratic traditions restored.

The best way to do this? Elect the country’s first black president. That way redemption is delivered and American exceptionalism once again held up as a beacon for everyone else to aim for.

Hold on. Many people in the rest of the world may still admire America’s traditional support for liberty and the rights of individuals – notwithstanding the battering both have taking under the Bush administration.

But after the past eight years the bar has been set very low – too low.

Simply electing someone who is black and spent part of his childhood living in a predominantly Muslim country offers no guarantee of real change in America’s foreign policy mentality.

For sure, if elected, Mr Obama would want to rebuild the US’s reputation around the world. But before anyone outside America is called upon to endorse him, we need to know a lot more about his thinking on several key issues.

First – and most important – will he replace America’s exceptionalist view of itself with an awareness that leadership will require a far more sophisticated understanding of its position in a global community of nations?

Even if arguably a waning superpower, it will remain a dominant force in global affairs. But it will have to acknowledge that its rights and powers have accompanying duties and obligations – in particular to involve other countries in debates that accept they have legitimate interests, even if these sometimes clash with those of America.

Where such a change would be most immediately apparent, and where it could also bring the most significant short-term returns, is in the Middle East.

An apology for the invasion of Iraq would be a good starting point, along with a commitment to work with all of that country’s neighbours, including Iran, towards building a stable and peaceful region.

Second, would the US under Mr Obama show leadership in building global co-operation that will be necessary to deal with the threat of global warming?

A useful sign of intent would be an undertaking to agree to international agreements, particularly the successor to the Kyoto Protocol, that will play a key role in shaping the world’s long-term future.

Of course, this will require taking on various domestic sectoral interests, but no one ever said that contributing to global leadership was easy.

Third, would he start working with rather than against the United Nations, with the goal of making it a more effective organisation?

Fourth, will he acknowledge that the Group of Eight nations is an archaic body formed out of the geopolitics of the second world war, but which now needs urgently to be expanded to include China, India, Brazil and an African representative?

And finally, will he make changes to agricultural policy, removing the farming subsidies and support for bio-fuels which between them are having a disastrous effect on the poorest people of the developing world?

Given Mr Bush’s abysmal foreign policy record, it is abundantly clear that the US needs a new approach. Mr McCain so far looks to be offering more or less the same. This should not mean, however, accepting Mr Obama by default. Unless he can demonstrate that the US will finally end its claims to exceptionalism, commentators should refrain from endorsing him.

If Mr Obama can demonstrate a willingness to work towards the creation of a better, fairer and freer world in which America’s role is about facilitation not coercion, then maybe we can offer him conditional support.

For now, while we may not be voting in this November’s election, we need to let the US know that its claims to exceptionalism no longer stand up to inspection and cannot be the basis for foreign policy.

The writer is founder and chief executive of the Global Institute For Tomorrow