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Can Obama meet the world more humbly?



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

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January 21, 2009

LONDON - Hillary Clinton, the U.S. Secretary of State, was harping on an old theme at her Senate confirmation hearing last week. She said her top international principle was to ”strengthen America's position of global leadership”. This reminds one of her Clinton administration predecessor, Madeleine Albright, who said that ”America is the indispensable nation” and ”We stand tall and hence see further than any other nation.”

It suggests that other nations are dispensable and that American indispensability is the source of wisdom. (So what about Iraq, global warming, Palestine/Israel, the International Criminal Court and financial probity?)

”One reads about the world's desire for American leadership in the United States", a high British diplomat told me. ”Everywhere else one reads about American arrogance and unilateralism”. And this was said before George W. Bush came to power. Today, even the instinctively pro American British Conservative Party has sought to step back from American hubris, no vote winner on this side of the pond.

Sad to say even President Barack Obama wrote in Foreign Affairs two years ago that the U.S. ”must lead the world once more.”

A short time ago eminent Harvard professor, Samuel Huntington died. In 1999 he penned an article in Foreign Affairs which caused almost as much shock as his previous ”The Clash of Civilizations”. ”In the past few years the U.S. has attempted unilaterally to do the following: prevent other countries from acquiring military capabilities that could counter American conventional superiority; enforce American law extra territorially in other societies; grade countries according to American standards on human rights, drugs, terrorism, nuclear proliferation and religious freedom; apply sanctions against countries that do not meet American standards on these issues; promote American corporate interests under the slogans of free trade and open markets; shape World Bank and International Monetary Fund policies to serve the same corporate interests; intervene in local conflicts in which it has relatively little direct interest; bludgeon other countries to adopt economic and social policies that will benefit American economic interests; promote American arms sales abroad; expand NATO; and categorize certain countries as ”rogue states””.

He finishes off this massive indictment by saying that in the eyes of many countries it is America that is becoming ”the rogue superpower.” Perhaps the best way to sum up Huntington's thesis is that America is a master of ”Do as I say, not as I do”.

Phew! If Huntington was an instinctive conservative what should those, more on the left, say, especially after eight years of President George W. Bush?

One of the more surprising books of the last two years is ”Dangerous Nation” authored by Robert Kagan who made his international reputation with his book, ”Paradise and Power” in which he said America was like Mars and, more scathingly, Europe was like Venus, unwilling to take on its international responsibilities and leaving America to police the world. The whole of this new book is a history of the violent, imperialistic tendencies that have governed U.S. white rule since its inception. He concludes by saying that the Declaration of Independence ”reflected Americans' view of themselves as the advance guard of civilization” and that this has continued to be so every since- the words of another formidable conservative writer.

It may be true, as Zbigniew Brzezinski has said, that the U.S. ”will be the first, the last, and only super power”. But this certainly doesn't mean that it will make much progress in the world by seeing itself in unipolar terms. In history only the classical world under Rome and, at times, East Asia under China, approximated this model.

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During the Cold War the global structure of power was bipolar. Now it is multipolar with several powers of either equal strength or coming up to it. The European Union economically is certainly a potential equal. Right now the euro is beginning to overtake the dollar as the currency investors like to hold. Already there are more euros in circulation than dollars. As Huntington observed, ”Virtually all major regional powers are increasingly asserting themselves to promote their own distinct interests, which often conflict with those of the U.S.” - look at how French President Nicolas Sarkozy recently led the European Union to settle the Georgia/Russian war on its own terms with minimal consultation with Washington. Today it is trying to do the same with the gas dispute, although this time it is floundering more since the EU leadership has passed to the less hefty Czech Republic.

Despite previous rhetoric, it seems that President Barack Obama has grasped the nature of our changing world. Whether Hillary Clinton has, or other high officials, who may find locating easily Kosovo, Burundi or Turkmenistan on a map a bit difficult, is a good question.

Obama will have to turn round a whole mentality, one holding a place deep in the American psyche, in quick short time. This week he starts.


Copyright © 2008 Jonathan Power


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Jonathan Power can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172
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Jonathan Power 2007 Book
Conundrums of Humanity
The Quest for Global Justice

“Conundrums of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging from “Can we diminish War?” to “How far and fast can we push forward the frontiers of Human Rights?” to “Will China dominate the century?”
The answers to these questions, the author believes, growing out of his long experience as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the International Herald Tribune, are largely positive ones, despite the hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.

William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
Jonathan Power's book "Conundrums" - A Review
"His is a powerful and comprehensive statement of ways to make the world better.
Is that worth the Nobel Prize?
I say, why not?"


Jonathan Power's 2001 book

Like Water on Stone
The Story of Amnesty International

Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the 40th Anniversary of Amnesty International



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