Great expectations: Barack Obama and the world

Jeremy Kinsman column on Barack Obama
Barack Obama in Germany in July 2008: 'The walls must come down' ((Markus Schreiber/Associated Press))

Americans selected Barack Obama as their new president because 85 per cent of them told pollsters they didn't like the direction the country was heading. His first and vast challenge will be to try to change that direction.

Obama was also the world's choice by a wide margin. But my swing through several European capitals this autumn told me that, deep down, non-Americans didn't really believe he would in the end be America's choice.

The fact that he was — that America did, in the quiet of the polling booth, decisively select the candidate of colour — has offered the U.S. that rare second chance to redefine itself to the world.

It has been said that there are only two global superpowers today: the U.S. and world opinion. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the two became largely aligned in empathy until George W. Bush squandered that asset.

Today, they are aligned again, this time in admiration.

Many Europeans I spoke with didn't believe Obama would be elected because "it couldn't happen here," in the UK or France or Spain, they said. The Chinese public were said to be both fascinated and envious of his campaign, Geoff York reported in the Globe and Mail.

Well, today's election is going to give a huge adrenaline shot to repressed democrats and human rights defenders the world over in ways that the Bush "freedom agenda" couldn't, simply because of the force of the Obama example.

The next U.S. president. ((Associated Press))

The new president inherits daunting domestic and foreign challenges but also an enormous fund of good will on almost every continent. For the short term, anyway, he is going to seem like the "world's president."

What is likely to change?

Obviously, the first to go will be George W. Bush and almost everything he stands for. Was this decent man as bad a president as people think? His Texan style didn't travel well, but the record? Darn near as bad.

I blame Vice-President Dick Cheney for much of this: the stealth and manipulation, the adversarial fixation on strengthening executive prerogative and stifling Congress as well as the laws of the land; the obsession to get Saddam Hussein and the blithe disregard of facts. But all that is past history now.

Turning the page, consider as gone the belief that military force alone can produce pleasing political outcomes. Or that U.S.-style unilateralism is a winning option.

Republican John McCain retained an "almost religious belief" in American exceptionalism and the merits of using military force to protect U.S. interests and values, Nicholas Lemann wrote in the New Yorker.

Obama won't have to declaim that America is exceptional. His very election shows that it is.

But gone will be the "with us or against us" bombast of the past so many years. Obama is more than a unifier. He is a cross-cultural figure.

Cultural anthropologists, whose stock is rising as U.S. agencies and military realize they don't really understand other peoples very well, should be thrilled.

An includer

Gone, too, should be that instinctive, pre-judging hostility to other countries such as Iran.

Obama's administration will undoubtedly support a community of democracies and of democrats but is unlikely to see these grouping as a made-in-America venture, one more coalition to line up against a growing list of adversaries, as McCain had seemed wont to do.

On the diplomatic circuit, every indication is that Obama is not a "great-power relationship" sort of leader either.

He is, by most accounts, a consensus seeker and while he will likely reach out to individual partners on a one-on-one, confidence-sharing basis, his preferred arenas will be multilateral — and large.

Forget about the G8. The preferred forums are likely to be the G15 or even the G20 because he is a big tent kind of guy.

Keeping a big stick

Economic recovery will be an uphill climb but with a more deeply Democratic Congress, an Obama administration can likely produce a quick stimulation package that, coupled this time with a sense of a fresh start, may have some real impact on a fretful American psychology.

Should that happen, it would only underpin Obama's leadership clout in the world.

But don't expect a president Obama to lighten up much on homeland security, or at least not until Americans tell him the cost of doing cross-border business is too high. (So, Canadians, grow up and renew your passports early. Service has improved at least.)

Also unlikely to change will be the core U.S. military budget, though some expensive programs like the provocative anti-missile defence system may get the chop.

As a liberal, Obama can't risk reducing U.S. military power or being seen to let America's guard down. Indeed, he has demonstrated a willingness to use force if necessary to go after the sanctuaries of really bad guys with or without local permission.

Would he have authorized last week's raid on a Syrian arms export depot? Probably. But he might actually have tried talking first to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The golden rule

North Korea won't change its spots overnight, nor will Iran knuckle under on the nuclear file. Nor will Iraq's Sunnis and Shias learn to love each other, or Israelis and Palestinians settle their scores, or the Taliban decide to celebrate Karzai-style democracy just because of Barack Obama.

So U.S. forces will likely be staying for a while in Iraq, though increasingly in the background.

In fact, there may well be spoiler-type pushback from upstaged brittle leaders like Russia's Vladimir Putin — unless Obama finds a way to get to them first, which he very well might.

Everybody who knows him passes the same message: that he reaches out to consult before he moves and follows the golden rule. He listens to and tries to understand others, which is why he is likely to drop the childish and dangerous practice of not talking with adversaries.

If one of Putin's main grievances is that Russia isn't taken seriously anymore by the U.S., then Obama ought to show that is not the case. Political leaders are human and attention counts.

That goes double for domestic politicians. I expect to see a return to the sort of attention former presidents like Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton lavished on members of Congress.

I expect to see the U.S. recommit to the goal of effective multilateralism in world affairs, where the rule is diplomacy first and military action only as a very last resort.

I expect to see the United Nations regain its rightful place in U.S. esteem. Obama has been explicit about the need to build an international consensus on the big challenges that individual governments cannot handle on their own, including counterterrorism, nuclear proliferation, and climate change and oil dependence.

I anticipate he will resubmit to Congress for ratification such multilateral initiatives as joining the International Criminal Court and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, despised by neo-conservative unilateralists. Indeed, I expect a major emphasis on negotiated nuclear disarmament, including that of America itself.

And Canada?

If you go to the Obama website and his campaign speeches, you won't find much about Canada — indeed, you won't find anything.

That may hurt those Canadians with the narrow soul of a deputy minister, but it's good news. We are not a U.S. problem!

But is Obama a problem for Canada? Wasn't he said to want to renegotiate NAFTA, the free trade agreement, to, implicitly, get a better deal for American workers?

That was probably campaign cover because some rust-belt Americans don't think NAFTA works for their country. But the recent global downturn turns the heat up on that file.

If there are issues to renegotiate, then let's be adults and think big about sharing a continent, and get down to it. That is the best way to get on the U.S. agenda.

With Obama in the White House, Stephen Harper's Conservative government may feel challenged by having, in Washington, a non-divisive social reformer and listener (hear that, 24 Sussex?) who believes in multilateralism, a once Canadian trait that we may have to relearn.

Will Obama press Canada to keep combat forces in Afghanistan past 2011? His first calls to add brigades there will likely be to others. Later, he'll listen to why we finally want to stand down and should probably respect the disproportionate contribution Canadians have made.

There will, however, be a problem on climate change, especially if there is no real effort to mitigate the environmental impact of developing the oilsands or to develop technologies that are not part of the carbon problem.

There may well be some sourpuss Canadian pundits who will disparage Obama's victory and put him down as a lightweight liberal floating on an ephemeral sea of rhetoric. Pay them no mind.

The rest of us should just celebrate the fact that our neighbour and closest friend has chosen the kind of leader that Canadians can instantly recognize because he operates in what used to be a very Canadian way of seeing and dealing with the world.


Jeremy Kinsman

Diplomatically speaking

Jeremy Kinsman is a former Canadian ambassador who served as High Commissioner to the U.K., and as ambassador to the Russian Federation and the European Union. He is co-author of the Diplomat's Handbook for Democracy Development Support by CIGI.