Millions worldwide watched the historic inauguration of President Obama on Tuesday, and there is a palpable sense of expectation well beyond the fifty-odd states and territories Barack Obama has actually been elected to govern. Leaving aside wound-licking conservatives, opinion is mostly divided between Obama-enthusiasts, who believe the new president will remake America and transform the world for the better, and Obama-sceptics, who believe he will make little or no difference. Strikingly, however, few commentators have questioned the idea that the president of the USA should have the power to shape the world.
This is most obvious when it comes to the Israel/Palestine conflict, and especially Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip, some 6000 miles from the White House. It has become an unquestioned orthodoxy that only the US, with or without the help of other major powers, can force the antagonists to reach a settlement, and Obama has already assured the world that this is one of his priorities. Supposedly radical critics of US foreign policy have mostly confined themselves to condemning Obama for not speaking out against the bombardment before his inauguration, and have adopted an arms-folded, foot-tapping posture of expectation. This is a reminder that too much of the opposition to the two far-off wars in which the US is already engaged has less to do with principled objections to great power politics than misgivings about how such power is exercised.
President Obama’s message that America is ‘ready to lead again’ in the world is profoundly anti-egalitarian, not to say insulting. It would be different, of course, if Obama had a truly inspiring vision, if Americans really were at the vanguard of history as they were at the nation’s founding in an egalitarian revolution. But despite Obama’s invocation of earlier generations who understood that America’s power and security came from ‘the justness of our cause, the force of our example’, in reality it is America’s sheer military might and diplomatic weight that has the world’s respect.
Cool car, though
The same is true when it comes to the economic downturn. Again, Obama managed some genuinely inspiring lines about the productivity of American workers and the inventiveness of American minds, but in the short term at least it is the borrowing power of the American state that he’ll be drawing on in a bid to recover the US economy, and by extension the world economy. And that is not enough.
Brendan O’Neill has made the point on spiked that it is time for Americans to put the ‘we’ into ‘Yes we can’. As Obama himself has always argued, America’s future indeed lies less with its president than its people. The rest of the world needs to recognise that we are not part of that ‘we’: we didn’t elect Obama and he is not our president. For all America’s undoubted power, it would be not only embarrassingly fawning, but irresponsibly naïve to put our faith in the people of a foreign country, let alone its president.
The election of a black president is certainly historic, and something to be celebrated. Even more than that, the campaign to elect President Obama was inspiring in its energy, its enthusiasm and its orientation to the future. We outside the US would do well to emulate those things in our own countries rather than letting the future of the world, from the fate of the Palestinians to that of the global economy, become this one black man’s burden.