PRINCETON – The astonishing story of Barack Obama’s election as president has already done much to restore America’s global image. In place of a president whose only qualification for the office was his father’s name, we now have one whose intelligence and vision overcame the formidable obstacle of being the exotically named son of an African Muslim. Who would have believed, after the last two elections, that the American public was capable of electing such a candidate?
Obama’s achievement raises the stakes for his first term in office. He campaigned on the theme that he is different from other politicians and will deliver real change. That appeal drew large and enthusiastic crowds, which, together with astute use of the Internet, gained him an unprecedented four million donors, and induced a huge number of African-Americans and young people to register to vote.
This is the chance of a lifetime to break through the cynicism that has pervaded American politics for decades. But if Obama fails to make good on his promise of change, it will be decades before the electorate again places its trust in a candidate who claims to be different from the usual run of politicians.
Many Americans will judge the new administration by what it does at home. That includes raising taxes on those earning more than $250,000 a year, and using the money to extend health insurance to the tens of millions of Americans who – uniquely for an industrialized nation – do not have it. He has also pledged tax cuts for medium and lower-paid workers, and improvements to America’s education system. Keeping those promises despite America’s gloomy economic prospects will not be easy.
The biggest impact that Obama can make, however, is beyond America’s borders. Last year, when speaking to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, he called for a president who can speak directly to everyone in the world who longs for dignity and security, and say: “You matter to us. Your future is our future. And our moment is now.” Indeed, it is now.
If Obama is to be that president, he should begin by keeping his promises to close the prison camp at Cuba’s Guantánamo Bay and to end the Bush administration’s practice of locking people away without ever telling them why or what they are charged with. He must also begin the process of withdrawing combat troops from Iraq, a task that he said would be completed in 16 months. Keeping these promises will be significant steps towards restoring America’s image around the world.
Playing a constructive role in bringing about reform at the United Nations is also vital. The structure of the Security Council is 60 years old. It still gives the victors of the Second World War permanent membership of the Council, and a veto over its decisions. To change that will inevitably dilute the privileges of those nations, including the United States. But if any US president can overcome that historical shadow hanging over the UN, Obama can.
Given that Obama has a Kenyan father and has spent time in the African villages where his kin still live, it is no surprise that he understands the need for rich nations to assist developing nations. Last year, he pledged to double US foreign aid by 2012, raising it to $50 billion a year. (That still leaves the US lagging behind many European nations in the percentage of its national income that it gives in aid.)
US aid also must be better targeted toward helping those living in extreme poverty. Regrettably, when then-Senator, now Vice-President Joe Biden was asked what spending an Obama administration might have to curtail because of the financial crisis, he mentioned the pledge to increase foreign aid. But doubling US foreign aid involves a modest amount of money, compared to what will be saved by pulling out of Iraq.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of turning the US into a good global citizen is cutting back on its grossly excessive greenhouse gas emissions – roughly five times the global per capita average. On this issue, the Bush administration wasted eight precious years during which we have gotten perilously close to the point at which an irreversible chain of events could occur that leads to catastrophe.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni last year accused the industrialized countries of committing aggression against Africa by causing global warming. That may sound like hyperbole, but raising the temperature and reducing the rainfall of a predominantly agricultural nation can be as devastating to its people as dropping bombs on it.
Obama needs to make the US a leader in reducing emissions. Then, having demonstrated his good faith, he and European leaders should be able to work out a deal that will bring China and India into whatever agreement replaces the Kyoto protocol when it expires in 2012. This may be the greatest ethical challenge of the Obama presidency, but, because so much hangs on it, the way in which he responds to it is likely to play a decisive role in how his presidency will be judged.