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Obama’s America Will Make a Decent Ally, but Let’s Not Get Carried Away

November 6, 2008

So, the great irrational wave of desire and expectation has broken. When it became clear that Barack Obama had taken a firm little majority of the popular vote, much of the world greeted his victory with euphoria. Two papers that might have been expected to display skepticism, Britain’s Telegraph and Canada’s National Post, respectively editorialised that the victory was one of “those rare, dramatic moments in history on which much else then turns” and that Obama had “breathed fresh life into the American project”. Ah, the tenacity of hype.

It’s not that I don’t like Obama, or recognise his positive qualities. He gets full points for intelligence, eloquence, and coolness under fire, and he apparently displays a refreshing willingness to listen. However, the flaws – inexperience, intense religiosity, an almost Blairite slickness with the media – are all too apparent. I can understand why people prefer the man to McCain, but not why they fall head over heels.

By people, incidentally, I mean not only Americans but also Canadians, Europeans, and Antipodeans. (Obamamania is more explicable in Africa, and generally less pronounced in Asia and Latin America.) Again, don’t get me wrong. In comparison to the last eight years, we can expect to hear a more courteous and consultative voice from the White House, and this will help international discussion of issues ranging from Afghanistan to climate change and global trade arrangements. Even if the difference is largely one of tone, the diplomatic wheels should turn more smoothly.

However, non-American leaders are not merely looking forward to working with Obama – they are displaying an unwholesome adulation bordering on servility. Australian PM Kevin Rudd sycophantically proclaimed that “[t]he world looks to America for global leadership”, and apparently various heads of government are jockeying anxiously for the honour of the first audience with his newly crowned majesty.

Closer to home, my fellow Canada’s Worlder Zandernat makes a well-argued case that a stiff dose of Obama’s leadership would be good for Canada: with luck, he’ll push us to take action on various issues that we’re too timid or small-minded to address for ourselves. However, we cannot outsource our political will to America or anywhere else. If Obama is really so much more visionary than our own politicians, we must simply push Harper, Layton and the rest of them to do better.

In fact, Obama’s presidency may present a golden opportunity to deflate American hegemony without creating undue rancour or enmity. Obama is conciliatory by nature, and he campaigned partly on promises to repair America’s relationships with other countries. Let’s try to persuade Europe and Australia, in particular, that the price of reinvigorated cooperation should be an end to American pretensions of unilateral global leadership. If we are to work closely together as a community of Western nations, it will be on far more equal terms. To make this credible, Canada would have to be prepared to accept greater military and diplomatic commitments, but the price seems well worth paying.


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