As the world digests President Barack Obama’s recent historic speech in Cairo, one conclusion is readily apparent: it will take more than a single speech to effect reconciliation between the United States and the Islamic world, after years of hostility and mistrust. But this was a significant start.
There is a second conclusion to be drawn, less evident but even more important: Obama’s ambition is not confined to cutting the root of Islamic terrorism, or even to bringing peace to the Middle East. It extends to nothing less than a complete reshaping of the global order.
Obama’s dramatic overture to the Islamic world was only the latest in a series of such openings by this remarkable US president. The economic crisis arguably forced the new American rapprochement with China (the “emerging” power that has now emerged as the big winner from the world’s financial turmoil). But no such circumstance prompted the move to “re-set” relations with Russia, the journeys to mend fences with Latin America and Turkey, or efforts to reach out to Iran. These are all products of a deliberate policy.
The unilateral moment has passed. The US had its few short years as a hyper-power, and it did neither America nor the world much good. Now, before our eyes, Obama is repositioning the US at the centre of a web of global bilateral relationships – the “G-2” economic relationship with China, the nuclear relationship with Russia, and now the search for a relationship of mutual respect and cooperation with the Muslim world. As in a Venn diagram, Obama is placing the US at that central point where all the different ellipses overlap. First among equals, and the indispensable nation.