THE ECONOMIST MAGAZINE conducted a global poll in the weeks leading up to the 2008 American election where they divided up the nations of the world into electoral states. Modelled after the electoral college of the United States, each country was allotted votes in relative proportion to their global population. According to the poll, Barack Obama won 85 percent of the popular vote, garnering 9,115 electoral votes to McCain’s 203. A landslide victory indeed.
Of course the readership of The Economist does not elect American presidents, only Americans do. But it would be hard to ignore the positive response when considering that the same world mesmerized by Obama has had a decidedly negative view of America for the better part of the last decade. According to a recent Pew Research Center report on global public opinion, a positive image of the United States declined in 26 of 33 countries surveyed since 2002. If America is not winning any global popularity contests, then why is Barack Obama?
One widely held and more cynical view is that many are simply reacting to the end of the Bush administration. Bush’s tenure on the global stage was highUghtedby misstep after disaster including the occupation of Iraq, the rise of a nuclear Iran, the resur- gence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the destabilization of Pakistan, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and a host of other issues. The Iraqi reporter’s shoes that sailed past Bush’s head during his last visit to Iraq per- haps symbolically represents the frustration many around the world feel with respect to the foreign policy approach of his administration. However, it would be unfair to dismiss the goodwill engendered by Obama as a phenomenon driven entirely by the fact that he is not George Bush. John Kerry set forth a similar foreign policy approach four years earlier to far less global fanfare.
Obama’s personal story certainly played an important role in endearing him to many. As the orphaned son of an African immigrant father and white American mother, Obama leveraged his wit, charisma and leadership to create political opportunity where there previously was none. It may be the case that marginalized, disenfranchised and minority communities around the world feel a special kinship to Obama, who was himself an outsider. The remarkable nature of his rise to power is underscored by the fact that he had no connection to the political establishment which he now presides over. Obama is an entirely self-made phenomenon. He has no political pedigree and no family fortune. He was a complete nobody, so much so that only eight years ago he was turned away from the floor of Democratic National Convention.
This reality is what establishes Obama as a remarkable historical figure as opposed to another American president. It is the same reality that makes America a remarkable nation in the history of nations as opposed to another empire enjoying its headiest days. Within Barack Obama’s lifetime there were parts of the United States where the right to vote was withheld from African Americans, if not by law, then by practice. The fact that a nation can renew itself in that timeframe from centuries of slavery, brutality and discrimination to elect someone to its highest office from the community subjected to that discrimination is unprecedented. Barack Obama is a great story because he is the actualization of the American story. His audacity to dare to become the President of America and actually succeed in doing so fulfills the promise of America: a nation where the color of one’s skin, the lineage of one’s parents, and the socio-economic background of one’s family does not represent an insurmountable barrier to dream the grandest of dreams.
Obama’s message of change tapped into the mood of the American people by acknowledging their sense of disenfranchisement from the political establishment. He then presented himself as the vehicle for their own empowerment, executing a campaign that circumvented exist- ing political machinery while drawing support and votes directly from the people. Obama did what politicians in democracies are supposed to do, inspire people to mobilize support. As a result he represents a unique socio-political reality of America that much of the world actually respects – the opportunity it affords its citizens to achieve whatever they want through hard work and dedication. Obama represents what the world hopes America would become, a symbol of hope and change in difficult and trying times. Obama cannot take all the credit for this, as he is a product of the great American experiment. He is someone who built upon the progress made by those, such as Martin and Malcolm, who came before him. Obama is not possible without America, and America is less than its full potential without an Obama. One cannot savor the election of Barack Obama without acknowledging the tremendous achievement in nation-building that is America.
Obama’s victory also clarifies that negative perceptions of America held throughout the world were a reaction to American behavior and not American ideals. The outpouring of support for Obama makes a good case for the argument that America’s declining prestige is a result of not living up those ideals. This is particularly important in the Muslim world where a deep and abiding cynicism of the “West” in general, and America in particular, are increasingly widespread. The neoconservative policy agenda advanced by Bush made it easy to convince the average Muslim that America’s rhetoric of spreading liberty and freedom was far from reality. From Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo Bay, Bush created a unique context for the demonization of America. An important recruiting tool for those who promote radical or extremist ideologies is the ability to cast America as an evil mono- lith incapable of either reform or genuine humanity. The existence of al-Qaeda is nothing if not the triumph of cynicism over hope. It exists to promote an ideology that believes that death and destruction are the only paths to reform. The election of Obama diminishes the efficacy of this narrative by demonstrating that American power can be held accountable without shedding blood. Obama is uniquely qualified to create a new American story for many abroad because he is not explicitly associated with the political and economic establishment linked to oil profits and the military industrial complex. The narrative al-Qaeda seeks to perpetuate in the minds of disaffected Muslim youth is that America is fundamentally evil, and intrinsically bent on the destruction of Islam. Explaining the Obama phenomenon from this worldview is not easy. Leaving aside his middle name, what Obama does is not only inspire hope that America can renew itself and adjust its course in the world, but it also gives the disenfranchised reason to believe that they can dare to change the direction of their respective nations. In other words, it is possible to make the world a better place without burning it to the ground. Redemption is what Obama brings America in the eyes of the world, and with it an affirmation that building is not only preferable to destroying, but it is also tangibly within our collective reach. If there is any lesson Muslims should take away from Obama’s success, it is this one.
By all accounts, Obama is a formidable and charismatic leader. His campaign victories over two of the most seasoned politicians in America, Hillary Clinton and John McCain, demonstrated his polit- ical acumen. Reports of his intellectual rigor and ability to listen and synthesize information are well-documented. At the same time, electoral victory does not necessarily result in a successful presi- dency. While acknowledging his remarkable achievement, the world will judge Obama over the next four or eight years for what he is able to accomplish as a statesman and a leader. A number of po- litical challenges await him without considering the task of manag- ing the global financial meltdown. Obama will face a resurgent Russia, the continuing rise of China and India, growing threats from non-state actors, a possible nuclear Iran and a potential failed state in Pakistan among many other legacy issues. He will not be able to address all of them, and can probably make meaningful progress in only a few areas while hoping to hold down the fort in others.
What will determine his success will be whether he can reestablish American prestige throughout the world and create a context for solving political disputes without resorting to military action. Obama must carefully recalibrate how American power is projected throughout the world, being mindful of rapidly changing geo-political landscapes where new regional powers are increasingly robust. Obama must work with partners to help forge a political and economic context of cooperation in bringing future global actors such as China, Brazil, India and Russia into the world stage. The older models based on a post-World War II division of power are no longer applicable. The world will change, and America can still lead, but must do so from a position of mutual respect. The goit-alone approach of the Bush years assumed a level of relative American power that is simply no longer the case.
With regards to the Muslim world in particular, Obama must articulate clearly how his message of change addresses the complex issues of peace in the Middle East as well as South Asia. Both regions remain powder kegs, largely fueled by the IsraeliPalestinian conflict and the ongoing tension between India and Pakistan. Israel’s December 2008 invasion of the Gaza strip, and the complicity of several Arab states in the process, made an explosive situation that much more volatile. Political realities will tie Obama’s hands, but whatever goodwill Obama has generated in the Muslim world could quickly dissipate if he does not present and execute concrete movement towards resolving some of these long-standing conflicts. The Arab-Israeli conflict will not be resolved without US intervention. The question Obama must ask himself is whether he has the courage and fortitude to do what is right and in America’s best interests, or otherwise bow to what is politically expethent.
Finally, it is important to consider the sage advice of the eminent philosopher and civil rights activist Cornel West. An avid supporter of Obama, West nonetheless makes the important assertion that despite the messianic fervor surrounding his campaign, Obama is politician, and not a prophet. The endgame of politics is power, not truth. In order for an Obama presidency to be fully realized, he must be held accountable by the people who elected him. West will be the first to challenge Obama when it comes to questions of morality, ethics and justice. Obama will bend to power like any other politician unless that power if countervailed by another force. American citizens have a role to play in providing that countervailing force. If we carry the message Obama articulated in his campaign to its logical conclusion, then the success of his presidency depends on how engaged Americans are in making sure he does what he said he will do. This is perhaps, in part, why democracy is known as the worst form of governance, except for all the rest.