Barack Obama’s world

Godfrey Hodgson
16 July 2009

Barack Obama's arrival on the world stage has been more than the entry of a young, popular president who offers a new and more generous spirit in America foreign policy. Almost everywhere he has gone - from Berlin to Cairo, from London to Accra - he has been treated almost as a young god, sent to redeem a wicked and a suffering world. 

Godfrey Hodgson was director of the Reuters' Foundation Programme at Oxford University, and before that the Observer's correspondent in the United States and foreign editor of the Independent

Godfrey Hodgson's most recent book is The Myth of American Exceptionalism (Yale University Press, 2009)

His earlier books include The World Turned Right Side Up: a history of the conservative ascendancy in America (Houghton Mifflin, 1996); The Gentleman from New York: Senator Daniel Patrick MoynihanMore Equal Than Others: America from Nixon to the New Century (Princeton University Press, 2006), A Great and Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving (PublicAffairs, 2007)

Among Godfrey Hodgson's openDemocracy articles:

"Barack Obama: at the crossroads of victory" (11 June 2008)

"America's foreign-policy election" (28 August 2008)

"America's economy election" (17 October 2008)

"Yes he can!" (6 November 2008)

"Change?" (2 December 2008)

"An end and a beginning" (5 January 2009)

"Barack Obama: don't waste the crisis" (6 February 2009)

"Barack Obama's reality gap" (27 February 2009)

"Barack Obama: end of the beginning" (30 March 2009)

"After the G20: America, Obama, the world" (6 April 2009)

"Barack Obama's hundred days" (29 April 2009)

"The Cairo speech: letter to America" (8 June 2009)

"Barack Obama: a six-month assessment" (10 July 2009) (Houghton Mifflin, 2000);Indeed, not since Woodrow Wilson arrived in Europe in December 1918 to preside over the Paris peace conference and make the world safe for democracy has any man carried the burden of so many hopes (see David A Andelman, "Versailles, 1919-2009: a new world order's legacy", 29 June 2009).

It is an uncomfortable parallel. Wilson's dream faded. The peace conference was an orgy of just that pursuit of narrow national interest Wilson had condemned, and he himself played the game in a manner hardly more elevated than did Lloyd George or Georges Clemenceau. His health collapsed. Henry Cabot Lodge destroyed his League of Nations. John Maynard Keynes left him caricatured for all time as a pious fraud, bamboozled by the wickedness of the old world.

Barack Obama shares with Wilson a missionary side. He also upholds the exceptionalist vision of America's destiny. In his way he does want to bring sweetness and light to a darkling world where the inheritances of 1918-19 still cast shadows (see Patrice de Beer, "Versailles to al-Qaida: tunnels of history", 9 November 2007). But he is no pushover. His intellectual training was at the Harvard law school, and his political education was in the Daleys' Chicago. So the problem that will test him is not that he is too good for a fallen world, but that America's resources - military, financial and political - may not be adequate for the almost unlimited role that is expected of him.

How much of this does Obama understand? It is striking in this respect that - for all his patience, his ability to listen, and his consensual style - his ambitions appear to match the expectations of him. His goal in effect seems to be no less than to remake the political world.

The sea of troubles

The sheer number and scale of the tasks he has set himself are unprecedented. He wants to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians, persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions, tame North Korea, bring Afghanistan and Pakistan into the Pax Americana, "reset" the relationship with a truculent Russia, maintain good relations with a rising China, drastically reduce nuclear weapons, rebuild connections with (while demanding more of) western Europe, calm the troubled spirits of Latin America, revivify Africa's economic energies for an age beyond dependency - oh, and achieve substantial progress on climate change.

To these epic ends he bids his messengers ride forth in all directions to bring the good tidings of a new, friendly yet resolute America: George Mitchell in the middle east, Dennis Ross in Iran, Richard Holbrooke in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And he has spent a good part of these six months carrying the message in person, to almost universal acclaim (perhaps Moscow alone excepted). But already things have gone wrong.

Dennis Ross has been taken off the Iran beat, admittedly not to be demoted but to be a close adviser in the White House. It is unfortunate that Ross has just co-authored a book wholly uncritical of Israel; worse that Binyamin Netanyahu has openly defied Obama's call for an end to Israeli settlements in the West Bank (see Akiva Eldar, "Binyamin Netanyahu's mirage", 15 June 2009); worse still that Iran's holocaust-denying president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad sabotaged the emollient message of the Cairo speech with a crudely manipulated election and brutal suppression of domestic opposition (see Asef Bayat, "Iran: a green wave for life and liberty", 7 July 2009).

Perhaps the Israeli and Iranian leaders will have difficulty maintaining their respective intransigent stances. Even if they do the hurdles they have set will remain high. It is hard to see that serious progress towards peace between Israel and the Palestinians is conceivable in Obama's first term (see Gideon Levy, "Barack Obama: Israel's true friend", 25 May 2009); and the result of Iran's fixed election may sink American (and European) efforts to stave off a crisis if and when Iran acquires its first nuclear weapon. It is already plain that - in this region alone - high ideals and a new face will not in themselves be enough to level the ramparts of bitterness.

In the new province of "AfPak", Richard Holbrooke will find it even tougher than he did in the former Yugoslavia. The United States has persuaded the Nato countries (and especially Britain) to join a campaign to expunge the Taliban from Afghanistan, with the collateral aims of bringing democracy to Afghanistan and protecting the homelands' streets from suicide-bombing. Holbrooke's boss in the White House has reinforced the American military commitment in Afghanistan, sustained the US's air campaigns (including "drone" strikes), and called for renewed efforts from Pakistan to defeat the Taliban in the Swat valley and adjacent areas.

It is not at all clear how this strategy can work. The Taliban, after all, was created by the United States and Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) to give the Soviet Union "its Vietnam". Afghanistan is a fragmented country of many ethnic groups and languages that has never been a modern state, let alone a democratic one. Much of its economy is in ruins, and many of its farmers' livelihoods are heavily dependent on the opium poppy. The project of military victory and of democracy-building look doomed (see Paul Rogers, "Afghanistan's lost decade", 16 July 2009).

Pakistan, beset by near permanent security and political crises, has many of the symptoms of a classic "failed state" (see Pervez Hoodbhoy, "Pakistan: the road from hell", 9 June 2009). It is hard to see that the US's security-centred strategy of bounteous military aid to an army with questionable loyalties can possibly be the foundation of the kind of progress in the region that Obama seeks.

The world's views 

Barack Obama's problems are compounded by the way that many of America's overseas partners to a great extent share the view of their country as (in Madeleine Albright's phrase) "the indispensable nation" - though with very proprietorial ideas of what they want from it.

Europeans expect America to protect them, but are reluctant to contribute to their own defence. India and Pakistan look to America as the powerful ally that will enable each to prevail over its regional rival. Israel and Egypt look to America for diplomatic support and financial aid. India and China hope that America will help them to avoid the full cost of containing climate change.

China is a particularly thorny problem for President Obama. There are powerful and impatient voices in Washington that find only annoyance in the kind of multilateral relationships symbolised by the G8, G20, the European Union and the United Nations; their dream is of a shaping "G2" partnership with China.

This pseudo-realism is a fantasy. For China is not, as Americans understand the words, either a capitalist or a democratic state. It is a troubled communist autocracy, whose grave domestic problems the rioting in Urumqi has revealed (see Kerry Brown, "Xinjiang: China's security high-alert", 15 July 2009). China may have accumulated a formidable quantity of dollar securities. But it is also hugely dependent on exports to the United States and indeed to Europe. The bilateral relationship between Washington and Beijing may be vital, but it is no substitute for proper global governance.

The canvas of hope

The twisted perception of a quick fix to prolong the United States's global hegemony via a bonding with China is but one indication that Barack Obama also has to worry about the balance of power at home (see "Barack Obama: a six-month assessment", 10 July 2009).

The president's freedom of action in the middle east, for example, is far less than most foreigners assume. It is hard to see how progress can be made without some degree of reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas: yet any hint of negotiating with Hamas would bring strong resistance from the American Israel Political Action Committee (Aipac) - with which Obama incurred some debts during his campaign. The chorus of opposition would be joined by Fox News and the Republicans, and by many Democrats in Congress.

In addition, Obama will have to negotiate his foreign policy through a Congress which will also be preoccupied with his domestic agenda. A cautious politician by nature, he will not want to risk his healthcare reforms or his climate-change policy for the benefit of promoting African agriculture or state-building in Afghanistan.

Obama is still the beneficiary of a vast fund of goodwill. But his political resources are circumscribed. The financial crisis has not yet had any marked effect on the US government's willingness to spend on its foreign policy. But the cost of the Iraq war, and the George W Bush administration's insistence on funding it "off budget", do mean that Obama must think (as his recent predecessors did not) of the cost of his policies.

In politico-military terms, he is even more constrained. There are troops to be moved from Iraq to Afghanistan. But Iraq stretched the American military considerably: troops and their officers experienced there longer and more taxing tours of duty than in the past. For the first time, serious people in Washington are coming to realise that the United States cannot indefinitely enjoy the luxury of not having to choose between alternative weapons-systems and alternative policies.

The Iraq war has shown that the United States can bring "shock and awe" to any country if it pleases. But the financial crash of 2008-09 and the economic recession that has followed have made clear what was already becoming apparent throughout the Bush years: that Washington no longer has the military power, the cash, or the political skill to understand - let alone to solve - every problem in the world (see Paul Rogers, "Iraq, AfPak, beyond: the global cost of war", 18 June 2009).

It is hardly excessive to say that much of the world yearns for Barack Obama to adjudicate its quarrels, heal its feuds, and bring peace. When measured against both this canvas of hope and what he seeks to achieve, Obama's resources are far smaller than they seem. He will have to prioritise. Much will depend on what his real priorities turn out to be. The second half of his first year in office will be a time of revelation. 

Also in openDemocracy on Barack Obama's presidency:

Simon Maxwell, "Global development: Barack Obama's agenda" (20 January 2009)

Pervez Hoodbhoy, "Obama's triple test" (21 January 2009)

Fred Halliday, "The greater middle east: Obama's six problems" (21 January 2009)

openDemocracy, "Barack Obama: hope, fear... advice" (19-23 January 2009) - reflections from thirty-seven of our worldwide authors

Simon Critchley, "Barack Obama and the American void" (22 January 2009)

Ruth Rosen, "American women's stimulus: voice, agency, change" (18 February 2009)

Jim Gabour, "The redemption game" (20 February 2009)

Mariano Aguirre, "Barack Obama and Afghanistan: a closer look" (8 April 2009)

Gideon Levy, "Barack Obama: Israel's true friend" (25 May 2009)

Robert G Rabil, "Barack Obama's middle east: pragmatism and hope" (1 June 2009)

Nader Hashemi, "What Obama must say (and do) in Egypt" (3 June 2009)

Plus - regular comment on openUSA

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData