Global Obama-mania rests on two facts. First, of course, is that Barack Obama is not George W. Bush, probably the U.S. president most reviled abroad since Lyndon Johnson.
Second is the example that Obama’s election set for the rest of the world. People across the globe have expressed admiration – and sometimes envy – at an election, which will bring the first Black president to the White House and demonstrated the ability of the American people to vote for fundamental change in their own government.
International adulation is both an opportunity and a risk for Obama.
His popularity offers the prospect of renewed U.S. global leadership that evaporated under George W. Bush. The danger, of course, is that Obama cannot possibly meet all of the global expectations his campaign rhetoric and attractive personality has aroused.
One of Obama’s greatest strengths as a campaigner was his ability to portray an image of listening to people’s concerns and then articulating positions that seemed to respond to them. A willingness to listen will be welcomed by many world figures as a change from the perception of lecturing, which the US has enjoyed in recent years – and not just under the Bush Administration.
But as president, Obama will have to do more than just listen and orate. He will have to take decisions – some of them bound to be unpopular – and build international coalitions to support the execution of those decisions. Moreover, he will have to do this as head of a nation whose political, economic, and moral stature has been diminished by a number of events – some real and others matters of perception.
Many of the early decisions President Obama will likely take – establishing a timeline for reducing U.S. presence in Iraq, closing or reducing the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp, ending some of the Bush Administration’s more unsavory practices with prisoners, and rejoining international diplomacy on climate change – will be popular in much of the world.
But Obama will also have to deal with many world realities in a fashion certain to alarm and offend some of his U.S. and overseas backers.
Campaign rhetoric aside, Obama and his advisers understand that to precipitate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq risks unleashing a broader regional conflagration that, once begun, would become the same tar-baby for Obama that Iraq was for George W. Bush.
Given his campaign rhetoric, the new administration will have to seek some kind of dialogue with Iran, but Obama is too smart not to understand Teheran’s skillful game of stringing along the international community while proceeding with its covert nuclear plans.
Obama may well be able to dial down the rhetorical Cold War with a newly resurgent Russia and there are opportunities for course corrections in some areas allergic to Moscow such as ballistic missile defense and NATO expansion, but he cannot ignore the ugly anti-democratic and xenophobic climate in Moscow; nor can he walk away from supporting threatened states on Moscow’s periphery without risking charges of appeasement.
In the Middle East, if Obama’s campaign speeches are any indication, the alliance with Israel will remain – as it should – a bedrock of U.S. policy, but with all that implies for U.S. diplomatic options.
Africa will seek a special relationship with America’s first Black president, but the prospect of effective U.S. engagement to end the horrors of civil and ethnic conflict in Sudan, Congo, and elsewhere in that troubled continent, remain remote. And don’t forget the Balkans.
In Bosnia and Kosovo there are troubling signs that settlements achieved by Obama’s Democratic predecessor may be starting to come unglued.
For Obama as president – like Bill Clinton as candidate – reality will be “it’s the economy, stupid.”
Obama has already made clear that dealing with the deepening U.S. economic crisis will be his first priority and few Americans will quarrel with that choice.
But Europe and the emerging economic powerhouses of what used to be called the underdeveloped world will seek to use the crisis to shape an economic system that reflects a less predominant role for the United States.
Ultimately, the greatest danger for Obama in this sphere may be the necessity of dealing first with global economic crisis that will lead the new administration to ignore other pressing issues on the international agenda.
Barack Obama ran a virtually flawless campaign. It’s unlikely that he can demonstrate the same kind of unblemished success in dealing with all of the world’s intractable realities.
As the 911 tragedy showed, even the president of the world’s most powerful nation can be surprised by unexpected events.
But as president, Obama has the opportunity to use the gifts he so abundantly displayed in the campaign to open a new chapter of U.S. leadership in world affairs.
Whether Obama seizes that opportunity will depend on the personnel and policy choices he makes early in his administration while he still has the momentum generated by the great expectations of his election.
(Louis D. Sell enjoyed a long and illustrious career in foreign policy, including positions as Executive Director and Founder of the American University of Kosovo; as Director for Kosovo, International Crisis Group, Pristina; U.S. Representative to the Joint Consultative Group and Open Skies Consultative Commission, U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Vienna, Austria; Minister Counselor for Political Affairs, U.S. Embassy, in Moscow and Belgrade; and was a Fellow, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Sell speaks Russian, Serbo-Croatian and French, and lives in Whitefield.)