Can Obama survive realpolitik abroad?

Business Times - 06 Aug 2008

His internationalist vision and strategy to restore respect for the US will face big obstacles in a 'post-American world'


WITH the exception of about 10 per cent of voters, Americans know by now that if elected as the next occupant of the White House, Barack Obama - who was born to a Kenyan-Muslim father but is now a practising Christian - will not become the first Muslim US president.

But is it possible that a future President Obama could end up selecting the first Muslim US secretary of state?

That is a speculation that has been raised by The New York magazine. That respected weekly suggested that columnist and author Fareed Zakaria - who was born to a prominent Muslim family in Mumbai - 'has the perfect intellectual pedigree (Indian-born, educated at Harvard, conservative) for a fast-changing world, and the kinds of friends in high places' that could help him land the job that had once been held by the likes of Dean Acheson, Henry Kissinger and James Baker.

And indeed, it does seem that there is some sort of personal and intellectual chemistry between 47-year- old Mr Obama and the 44-year-old Mr Zakaria. In a photo published in the The New York Times a few weeks ago, Mr Obama was seen carrying a copy of Mr Zakaria's latest book, The Post American World (which is now at the top of The New York Times best-seller list), while Mr Zakaria (who interviewed Mr Obama on his new CNN programme) hailed the Democratic candidate in his column as the 'true realist' on foreign policy in the current presidential race.

But even if someone who doesn't look like past US secretaries of state won't be serving in an administration of someone who doesn't look like past US presidents (assuming that the Democratic candidate does indeed get elected as president), it's safe to assume that Mr Obama would count Mr Zakaria as one of his advisers and leading sources for ideas on foreign policy.

Mr Zakaria in his book provides Mr Obama with the kind of strategy that the next US president would need as part of an effort to recover US global leadership in a post-Bush, post-Iraq and - after the collapse of the global trade negotiations - post-Doha era.

Indeed, restoring the US image around the world, and especially in the Middle East, and re-embracing a multilateralist approach under which Washington works together with its diplomatic and trade partners, and with new (India, China) as well as old global players (the European Union, Russia) to advance common interests are expected to top the foreign policy agenda of a President Obama.

Mr Zakaria's book proposes that such a strategy be grounded in realistic foreign policy principles and, notwithstanding the book's title, would permit the US to maintain enormous military, political, economic and cultural influence worldwide in the 21st century, while co-opting into the stable international system and prosperous global economy the members of the Rest.

This would include China and India, and many of the new emerging economies such as Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa.

According to Mr Zakaria, what Washington needs now is a strategy that would help transform the campaign against terrorism from a unilateralist US military project that ignites anti-Americanism in the Muslim world into a cooperative security and diplomatic effort that strengthens the modern forces in the Broader Middle East.

At the same time, Washington needs to focus much of its energy on managing its relationship with the new centres of global economic and political power, with China being the most critical player in the Rest.

And as Mr Zakaria suggests, the main factors missing in Washington that are needed to pursue these transformational goals are vision and leadership. Obama! Obama! Obama!

Both Mr Obama and Mr Zakaria share a certain sense of optimism about the shape of things to come in the global order. If only the US leaves the neoconservative project and dumps isolationism, protectionism and xenophobia, and returns to its internationalist roots, the Rest of the world would be willing to work with the US since such an approach is in the interests of China, India, Russia, and the EU. Yes, We Can!

Unfortunately, isolationism, protectionism and xenophobia are alive and kicking in America, including among many Democrats who belong to the Obama coalition but regard China and the rest of the emerging markets as a 'threat' to America's economic security.

Hence their disinclination to provide the White House with the power to continue advancing an ambitious trade liberalisation agenda. That explains why even the internationalist Mr Obama has proposed that Washington needs to revisit its free-trade agreement, including Nafta, and why the protectionist and China-bashing sentiment will continue driving legislation and policies under an Obama presidency.

This would especially be the case if the American economy continues to experience the multiple maladies of recession, inflation, a falling US dollar, and housing and financial crises.

An economic nationalism in America would beget economic nationalism in China and the rest of the Rest.

Indeed, both Mr Obama and Mr Zakaria seem to be overstating the impact that a possible US diplomatic and economic engagement would have on the Rest. If anything, the tough approach adopted by China and India during the recent global trade negotiations in Geneva suggest that the more assertive members of the Rest feel that their rising economic and political power, fuelled by their thriving markets and booming energy prices, provides them with more leverage to force the US to accept their terms for cooperation.

Again, the changing international backdrop highlighted by the inability of the US to challenge the more aggressive policies of Russia, Iran and Venezuela point to this stance among the others.

If elected, Mr Obama could find himself presiding more over reactive policies - responding to actions taken by a more self-confident Rest that seems to lack incentives to accept the American rules of the game and to pressures from a more isolationist America - than over the kind of activist internationalist policies that Mr Obama and Mr Zakaria seem to share.

After all, it's quite possible that even a President Obama wouldn't be able to muster the kind of political support at home that he needs in order to, say, revive the Doha Round or help settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or to engage Iran or China at a time when the Rest would not be in a mood to make deals with Washington. That would certainly make for a very different Post-American World.

Copyright © 2007 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


Adrian said…
URGENT: (Please share this info)
Philip J. Berg, Esq. Files Federal Lawsuit Requesting Obama Be Removed as a Candidate as he does not meet the Qualifications for President.

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