A Russian view of Obama's election

Boris Dolgin
13 November 2008

The results of the US presidential elections always draw worldwide attention. This time it was positive. There was none of the usual resentment of the fact that the president of a country which in many respects determines the way the world is run is only elected by the population of that country. American sympathies clearly coincided with those of people in most other countries.

The mass antipathy aroused by the current president has bred an expectation of change from a candidate who declared his desire for radical renewal. It has also prompted a readiness to cast him as the best representative of the ordinary people, someone directly connected not just with the West, but with Africa and Asia, someone who has his himself experienced the problems of minorities etc. As one Russian liberal of the older generation noted somewhat paradoxically: ‘If I were American, I would of course vote for Obama - firstly because he is black, and secondly because he is a man of culture.' Most Americans probably voted for other reasons, but the result was the same.

Some of these hopes seemed to us naïve. Pretending to be against the system is not an entirely honest approach when submitting oneself for election. Nothing changes in an instant, and the candidates did not have sweeping plans for change. There were other concerns too, among them that Obama was immature and lacked experience to be president of the world's most powerful country. All this made us very doubtful that he was the optimal candidate. However, there was no candidate who was particularly inspiring - they all had their shortcomings.

Over time the situation changed in all respects. Although we disliked the  ‘Obama-mania', it could only be regarded as positive that a broader social demographic was participating in the political system. To some extent Obama became the representative of a mass movement. In Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, and to a lesser degree Ukraine, the fact that the ‘colour' revolutions enjoyed mass public support did not prevent their ideals being betrayed. In a liberal democracy such a betrayal is much more difficult.

The election campaign came at a rather uneasy time. Inevitably, its backdrop was the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the economic crisis, the floods, the war in the Caucasus etc. All this forced the future president to get a firm grasp of the main problem areas as quickly as possible, before assuming power. Obama has visibly ‘grown up' during this period, as the various crises brought promises / expectations of changes closer to reality.

The unfolding events were bound to change the electorate's ideas about the suitability of the different candidates. For example, in the circumstances of 2006, we might have expected a more sober view of Russian-American relations from McCain than after the Caucasian war, when he was too directly involved with one of the parties to the conflict. Hence his rigid adherence to the ‘punitive' approach. At present, when maintaining dialogue is the more important for being complicated, this position could seriously have escalated the confrontation.

In the context of mounting anti-Americanism in different parts of the world, the mass support underpinning Obama's election will help resolve issues which the current administration were unable to tackle because it had become so mistrusted and disliked. .

While not wanting to join the chorus of raised expectations, it must be admitted that the new American president really does start from quite a strong position. In the end, mistrust, though of a different kind, underlies even an economic crisis, and recovery is only possible if that problem is addressed. Obama, having acknowledged the serious nature of the crisis, will be able to unite the nation around his person, thus making himself an important factor in its resolution. In this respect the Russian leadership is in a much weaker position. For while initially they talked of Russia being ‘an island of stability' and kept quiet about the problems, now they are taking measures without having held widespread preliminary discussion. They express their wish to reform the global financial institutions, but they have not made it clear over the last month how exactly this can be achieved.

The process of deciding the make-up the future Obama administration which has now begun is bound to disappoint people who are expecting faces never before seen in the corridors of power or big business. It will also guarantee hours of interesting discussion as people try to guess future policy from the names of the incumbents to important positions.

For other countries, the period until 21 January is a time for maintaining civil relations with the ‘lame ducks', while strengthening contacts with the winning group. We have long maintained the importance of Russia establishing these contacts when the parties nominated their candidates, and we can only hope this was done.

It would be desirable not to allow relations to deteriorate before Obama assumes the post, and as soon as possible to correct the impression left by inappropriate threats made of an asymmetrical response to the deployment of Anti-Ballistic Missiles in Europe.  

For the start of a dialogue, the infamous notion of a ‘multipolar' world does not look much more promising. The thesis seems to us to be too ill-thought out to be able to take a view of it. It would be more understandable and productive to be considering how we can combine diverse cultures and the universality of rules, a common value space for Europe, Russia and the USA, a system of rapid reaction to local crises, etc.

It is also important to keep talking about a collective security system for North America, Europe and Russia. But to ensure that this discussion is better heard, the idea should be developed in a more concrete form. The next task will be to establish a forum for ongoing dialogue about such a system with the USA, Canada, the European Union and European countries which are not yet part of the EU. This dialogue, which is valuable in itself, will be no easy matter. But it probably presents no harder task than that which culminated in 1975 with the signing of the Helsinki Final Act.

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