The world made its preference clear for U.S. president long before the Democratic Party weeded out Hillary Clinton last week.
Global Obamamania has spread in South Asia, where Obama lived as a child — in Indonesia. It has reached Africa, where his Kenyan father, a goat herder turned economist, was born. For their part, Europeans consider Obama a hybrid of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, embodying the American dream and their own worldliness.
Never have foreign media given so much air time and spilled so much ink over a U.S. primary race. And whatever Americans decide in November, foreigners would pick Obama in a landslide without knowing the details of his policies: a true triumph of hope over experience.
During a different presidential race, all that might not mean much. U.S. leadership is about making tough calls and not winning foreign popularity contests. Yet given the timing and the stakes, what Obama has stirred globally is of strategic significance. Should Republican John McCain win, he too would have to tap the underlying global hunger for renewed U.S. leadership.
We are at a decisive moment at the end of globalization’s second decade, begun around the time the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, heralding the end of Soviet-style communism. The U.S. was already losing relative influence among other rising powers before missteps by President George W. Bush’s administration accelerated the process. U.S. leadership must inspire because if it doesn’t, much good in the world could erode.
A faltering U.S. puts at risk the past 60 years of spreading democracy, growing prosperity, freer markets and enlightened leadership. For all the talk of a new multipolar world, no country or region is stepping forward to replace the U.S.: China, Russia, India and even the European Union aren’t made of that stuff. Yet the U.S. in its reduced status needs them all more than ever.
The next U.S. president will have to persuade friends to punish an Iran bent on nuclear weapons with tougher sanctions or, if they fail, military action. He must rally allies to commit more resources to stabilizing Afghanistan. He not only must shift U.S. energy and environmental policy, but wrap that in a global approach that India and China can swallow. He must remake institutions from NATO to the United Nations before they wither.
That backlog of challenges would grow with a terrorist attack, a global pandemic or a huge natural disaster.
Rarely has an incoming U.S. president faced such a daunting and complex list of foreign-policy impediments. And he will face them with reduced moral, financial and military standing, a consequence of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, budget-and-trade deficits, subprime woes and political overreach.
Obama’s charisma might buy him more initial good will globally than McCain would get, but the honeymoon would end quickly if his policies disappoint.
He would do well to begin by listening to two foreign constituencies that already have their doubts.
First are moderate Mideast friends who shudder at increased Shiite extremism and Iranian gains the Bush administration unleashed. But they doubt Obama’s antidote of a firm timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq and his willingness to talk mano-a-mano with Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Second, global investors are concerned that Obama is enabling the growing protectionism of his party’s grassroots. He has spoken of the need to amend the North American Free Trade Agreement, and he has opposed other new free-trade deals. Former President Bill Clinton, after a similar campaign stand, ended up as a free trader. But it will be harder for Obama to reverse course with rising public hostility toward China and a Democratic Congress, something Clinton didn’t face.
For the moment, both candidates have chosen Iraq as their central battlefield. Here, Obama is more vulnerable than opinion polls suggest as Americans will weigh not just how to get out but also which man can best lead them in a dangerous world.
What will serve McCain is that he supported the troop surge in Iraq when it seemed political suicide to do so and his campaign was struggling. Without the surge’s relative success, he wouldn’t be his party’s candidate. He ignored opinion polls and chose the course he believed best for his country, hitting a chord with Americans who like his proven wartime courage.
Obama makes a mistake when he attacks McCain as a Bush retread, which the facts don’t support. His campaign also errs when it repeats ad nauseum McCain’s words that the U.S. might stay in Iraq for 100 years, stripping down a complex debate to out-of-context words. That cartoon character is no more accurate than McCain’s portrait of Obama as someone who would naively negotiate with despots while setting off Mideast conflagration through premature Iraqi withdrawal.
Obama should avoid sound-bite ping-pong on foreign policy with McCain. He can elevate the debate on America’s world role the way he did the discussion of race following the stir caused by Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s hateful former minister.
Global Obamamania has been about hope, not fact. It’s time to fill in the details for a world that will depend on them.
Frederick Kempe is president and CEO of the Atlantic Council. Originally published 10 June 2008 by Bloomberg News. Reprinted with permission.