Comment & analysis
Obama is not the president of the world
H. Nanjala Nyabola
2011-03-03, Issue 519
Barack Obama has the most difficult job in the world. Whether fighting fires within his own nation or being constantly challenged to intervene in the business of other states, it seems that the current president of the United States is destined to spend his term between a rock and an indefinite sequence of hard places. Much of this tension stems from the fact that the international demands impressed upon the ‘leader of the free world’ and the head of 50 united states have never been as diametrically opposed as they seem to be today. Yes, it seems that the chickens of decades of domestic isolationism and foreign policy overreach are finally coming home to roost during Obama’s first term.
On the cusp of the 2008 election that brought Obama to power, the Economist magazine ran a special feature in which its readers from around the world were invited to ‘ vote’ in the US general election. Aside from voters in Iraq, the majority of voters ‘painted the world blue’, indicating that President Obama was probably the first US president since FDR to be as or more popular overseas than he was in his own country. Obama’s promise of relatively liberal international policy was a welcome relief following Bush’s interventionist excesses, and the vows to close Guantanamo Bay, to deliver a tenable peace deal in the Middle East and to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan all resonated with a world that was reeling from war-related spikes oil prices and a rise in terrorist attacks ostensibly on US targets but generally affecting citizens of other nations. Celebrations over Obama’s election rang across the globe and a collective sigh of relief that the heavy-handed, indelicate foreign policy of the Bush years was apparently finally behind us.
Unfortunately for President Obama, inasmuch as the international community felt itself a part of his victory, it seems to feel itself obligated to demand a significant portion of his attention. If analysts are to be believed, the eruptions of violence and discontent in various corners of Africa and the Middle East remain uninteresting or irrelevant until President Obama declares his position on the events. In Tunisia, even though the former colonial power seemed to side initially with the administration, as soon as Obama hinted that his administration sympathised with the demands of the protesters, the crisis went from being civil unrest to being a revolution. It is understandable that considering that the US bankrolls the Egyptian military, Obama’s voice on the revolution there should have significant clout – but the same cannot be said for Libya, where Obama has still been pressed to declare his allegiances. In contrast, where the US president is yet to make such declarations as in Djibouti or Gabon, protesters and latent revolutionaries continue to be ignored.
But what does the world really want from the president of the USA? Survey after survey of national attitudes indicates that citizens of other countries generally reject US intervention in their own national affairs, but are quick to urge US intervention in third countries. No one is looking to David Cameron for some kind of guidance on the Libyan crisis even though it has been revealed that the UK government and several of her private citizens have extensive links with the Gaddafi regime. Nor is anyone calling on France to develop a comprehensive response to the crises in Cote d’Ivoire, even though as the former colonial power and having maintained several questionable links with various administrations in the country, perhaps the French government has more of an obligation to clean up a mess that any historian would argue they helped to make. Does anyone even care that the African Union (AU) has done nothing more than issue lukewarm statements following the crises in Cote d’Ivoire and Egypt?
A nation facing its own internal demons, the US has lost much of the clout and international legitimacy that it once wielded, especially following the widely broadcast ineptitude of the Bush administration. The country is struggling under a rapidly mounting national debt and is increasingly beholden to China, its biggest creditor currently holding about US$900 billion or US$1 trillion of US Treasury holdings (depending on whether or not you include Hong Kong). This massive debt not only heightens the uncertainty surrounding the fiscal feasibility of the entire state, but also engenders a deep resentment internally, considering that the lion’s share of the money is being used to shore up a military fighting two ‘unnecessary’ wars and a banking system that continues through awarding obscene bonuses to thumb its nose in spite to the general population. The international community did not vote him in; US citizens did and the national mood in the US seems to be for greater attention to be paid to sorting out these and other internal issues. The schizophrenic attitude of many observers seems to be a desire to see the US consumed by these international failures – to serve as a vindication of the inadequacy of the neo-liberal model – coupled with a wish for the US to continue to engage itself in each and every crisis that emerges.
To be sure, being the most powerful country in the world brings with it a certain degree of responsibility, especially when that greatness is built on a morally murky history. Machiavelli advised an emerging prince that it would be better to be feared than to be loved, but with the twinned factors of its dark history and the proliferation of urban guerrilla conflict changing the stakes and the outcomes of modern warfare, it seems that the US is destined to neither be loved nor feared. In February of every year, the US commemorates Black History Month and reminders that the legacy of slavery has yet to be adequately addressed in the country’s national policies are plentiful. Similarly, the legacy of several misguided Cold War interventions in Africa, Asia and South America continue to haunt these regions, with nations like Nicaragua, the DRC and Cambodia still struggling to move beyond atrocities that have, due to political considerations, failed to be adequately acknowledged. Add to this the modern fiascos of Iraq and Afghanistan and it seems justifiable to argue that the US does indeed owe many regions in the world an apology, if not some measure of redress through intervention.
Even so, the time has come for the various regions of the world, especially Africa, to borrow a leaf from the Asian nations and start sorting out their own messes. Before looking to the US to comment on or validate participants in the next big crisis, it’s time for other nations to either start bearing their share of the burden or stop taking exception each time US foreign policy overreaches.
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 Emily Flitter (2011) ‘ Analysis: What is Plan B if China dumps its U.S. debt?’ in Reuters.com, 18 January 2011 (accessed 27 February 2011) available at http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/01/18/us-usa-treasuries-china-idUSTRE70H5NX20110118
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