Obama may nudge but won’t shake the world

It will be good once again to have a U.S. president who is a fluent speaker of English. And how fluent! Obama’s victory oration was a fine display, my favourite part being the closing remarks when, in ritual contradiction of those who doubt America’s ability to recover her economic and political prestige, he threw out that quiet little ‘Yes we can.’ Said too empathically, with a rising tone, too rousing a tone, this would have sounded strident, embattled. Instead, he deftly threw the line away, no emphasis at all, just quiet assurance. It was a beautiful delivery. Every bit as beautiful as the entire Obama family.

Obama’s election is in a sense of more sociological or cultural than political significance. This is not only because he is (half) black, although that is indeed a development worthy of note. I recall a (British and very white) aunt weeping when Arthur Ashe won Wimbledon in 1975, so outraged was she that a black man should triumph in what was still essentially a white sport. It’s amazing what thirty years can do. Yet it is also decidedly the case that in the presidential contest the best-looking man won. If Obama were not beautiful, were not invested with natural grace and nobility, if he had crooked teeth or the same skin tone as Jesse Jackson, then Hillary would likely have got the nomination. Once over that hurdle it wasn’t much of a contest with poor McCain whose funny arm gestures, hindered by war injuries, seemed to bring him no ‘diversity’ kudos at all, and who often looked little better than a corpse. Nevertheless, it is a distinctly 21st century aesthetic that enables a clear majority of a predominantly white (76%) electorate to see a ‘mixed race’ person as beautiful or, failing that, at least to see him as not scary. Something fundamental has shifted.

Also significant are Obama’s credentials as a global person. His mixedness, his half-African ancestry, his childhood experience of Indonesia and Hawaii, combine to rescue him from parochialism. He probably has a better understanding than the U.S. establishment in general of how America appears to the rest of the world, and that in itself may improve international relations. If nothing else he may at least avoid gross mispronunciations of foreign place names. (Laos has not yet recovered from the Nixon version of its name.)

Expectations, however, are running absurdly high in many quarters. East Africa, certainly, is jubilant. The Ugandan newspapers have editorialised ecstatically for two full weeks about the victory, confidently (and foolishly) predicting a massive aid package as soon as the new president takes office. Obama T-shirts with the legend ‘Made in Africa’ can be seen on the streets of Kampala and pedlars are hawking posters of the great man. Some people here are beginning to argue that his dad was not really Kenyan but, in fact, Ugandan. Even some southern Sudanese residents, who previously favoured McCain—in the belief that he would provide more robust support for secession from the ‘Arab’ north—have now got caught up in Obamania and are trying to claim him as one of their own.

This euphoria is bound to evaporate soon enough for there is no reason to think that, for all his global characteristics, Obama will be anything less than fully committed to protecting American interests. That’s his job; and his electoral mandate is to oversee the regeneration, not the imperial decline, of America. Interestingly, this seems to be understood best by the Russians and Chinese who, in the main, have been coolest about the election result, not being much given to untested enthusiasm for foreigners (nor, in the main, much given to regarding black as beautiful.)

There is some chance, though, that Obama will be more able than his predecessor to see American interests as needing to mesh and balance with, not be asserted against, the interests of other places. The U.S. political establishment has not been comfortable in the post Cold War world, with the left troubled by globalisation and the right casting about for new bad guys to square up to, civilisations to clash with. Obama is almost certainly the best, present hope for leading his compatriots beyond the narrow dichotomy of either disengaging from the world or imposing a Pax Americana upon it. We should at least be grateful to have avoided the dangerously divisive ‘League of Democracy’ nonsense that McCain was proposing.

What most of the world wants is for America to refrain, despite her global military supremacy, from trying to order world affairs around priorities and designs and templates made in Washington. This won’t be an easy habit to break. History does not offer many examples of the voluntary non-exploitation of supremacy and to many decent Americans a less pro-active global policing role would feel like abandoning not just their national interest but their global responsibilities. Nevertheless, Obama might possibly begin to nudge the nation in a less unilateral direction to meet new challenges—pre-eminently, climate change—that defy unilateral solutions. But readjustment, however desirable, is unlikely to be a simple process and will certainly not be one in which the president overlooks the interests of U.S. citizens—despite their problematically unsustainable lifestyle, which is marked by an energy extravagance that is on the whole worse than most other first world countries.

If an Obama nudge is nonetheless to be hoped for, it is equally to be hoped that the rest of the world will begin to leave behind the petty anti-Americanism and resentment that is, perhaps, the inevitable adjunct to supremacy. (Envy, George W. Bush would say.) This is evident not just among those who can claim to be direct victims of American meddling but also among European intellectuals of the left who, in a way that still often smacks of post-imperial pique, have long deprecated as ‘Americanisation’ every new trend in their own societies that they don’t like and who seem to enjoy deploring every American misadventure overseas.

Yes, to be sure, the two and a half centuries since the American Revolution have seen some shameful episodes and practices: annexation of Spanish colonies (most painfully, the Philippines); sustained interference in, especially, Latin America; the first development and use of nuclear weapons; some appalling Cold War proxy conflicts; unprincipled support for dictatorships and destabilisation of democracies. The ‘war on terror’ response to the Al Qaeda 9/11 attack was understandable and predictable but has also brought us closer to the global polarisation that the terrorists were doubtless aiming to provoke. Yet, for all that, the frequent insinuation that American ‘neo-imperialist hegemony’ has been especially dastardly is entirely fatuous when one recalls the nakedly abusive empire building exploits of the Belgians, British, Dutch, Germans, Italians, French, Portugese and Spanish, and the enduring trouble that those exploits have caused, especially, although not exclusively, on the African continent.

The British journalist, James Cameron, wrote in his 1969 autobiography (‘Point of Departure’) that ‘The American nation is unprecedented in history: so rich, so strong, so vulnerable, so generous, so blind, so bountiful, so clumsy, so kind, so perilous, so unmanageable in their simple minded craftiness, the brutal innocence of their lethal benevolence.’ That was fair comment 50 years ago in the shadows of the Vietnam war, which Cameron spent years covering; and it is to his credit that he recognised the generosity of American intentions paving the road to hell at a time when many ‘progressives’ (including black Americans) were arguing, more stridently, that the Vietnam war was the overseas projection of domestic American racism.

But today we have a rather different America. Parochial still—but where isn’t?—yet less so now; not least because of the steady absorption of new immigrants not only into the blue collar workforce but also into economic and intellectual elites. Confused about its role—but who wouldn’t be? Inclined to regard itself as the gold standard of civilisation—but that is the invariable hubris of great powers and, what’s more, the Obama election ostensibly vindicates to at least some extent the recent American narrative of equal opportunity regardless of race, creed or gender. Let us for now have the generosity—or, as Obama might put it, the audacity—to hope that America will begin to apply that narrative not only at home but abroad.

Nick Young
November 17 2008, Kampala