Translated from Gegenstandpunkt: Politische Vierteljahreszeitschrift 3-2009, Gegenstandpunkt Verlag, Munich

Obama’s Change in World Politics

Caution is in order when world leaders find an idealistic motto for their plans for world politics, announcing a dream for a better world or a mission for humanity. The submissive habit of checking the leading personalities for credibility — whether they honestly mean what they say and have the means to keep their fine promises — doesn’t do. However hopeful or skeptical, however quickly or deeply disappointed civic-minded souls may be, they are all credulous. For they all accept and adopt the political idealpresented to them as a yardstick for judging deeds of rulers — as a good mission that world leaders have to serve. And yet when powerful statesmen solemnly invoke internationally valid values with which they not only make demands on their nation’s rank and file but also remind their foreign counterparts of their duties, they are regularly and plainly announcing tough, imperialist demands. After all, the premise of this kind of political message is that they are responsible for civilizing a world in which, as is known, nothing but rivaling rulers claim their own rights. The slogan “freedom or socialism” stood in this way for the epoch-making declaration of war of the united West against the wrong system of a Soviet Union that denied its territory and sphere of influence to the globalization of capitalism — a declaration of war that included the planning for a nuclear war. Afterwards, after the fall of the “Iron Curtain,” U.S. president George Bush Sr. proclaimed the “New World Order,” which was introduced by the war against Iraq. And the most recent mission for democracy, for which George Bush Jr. found the slogan “antiterrorism,” or sometimes “good versus evil,” is known to have justified a multi-front war against unpopular states.

The new American president Barack Obama goes to the whole world with his desire for “change.” In great speeches to shifting audiences — to Russians and Moslems, to starving Africans and peace-loving Europeans, and even to George Bush’s rogue states — he announces that, from now on, the United States will stand up for a broad agreement with, and between, all states, holding out an open hand to them. The times of confrontation and unilateral dictates from the White House are therefore past. One might almost think that the capitalistic superpower had decided on a policy of self-restraint, judging itself to be broadly compatible with the rest of the world and therefore no longer recognizing any deviating and hostile national interests in the future — and, in fact, this is how the applauding public around the globe, above all the enthusiastic, young followers of the new political star, take it.

Neither the content of the announcement of a “change” in world politics, nor Barack Obama’s demanding diplomatic offensive leave room for this interpretation. Instead, they contain two clarifications:

First of all, the agenda of the black president signals anything but a new modesty in American state power. Just by emphatically insisting that the states and peoples of the world, beyond all differences, are in fact linked mainly by “common interests and shared values,” the new U.S. administration makes clear its demand that foreign politics has to be aligned with American interests. It spells out to the world the “global challenges” that have to be met for the good of all. It presents its political guidelines and tasks to the states as their very own interests that none of them can possibly refuse. Supported by its superior, national instruments of power, it claims, as a matter of course, the authority to assign the rivaling powers in every corner of the world the rights and duties that guarantee that American and global security are identical. Hence the utmost concern of the U.S. is to bring the sovereign will of foreign states under its control. What undoubtedly holds sway here is political continuity: a U.S. president is responsible for world order, or he is no President.

Secondly, the new leader demonstrates to all the world — above all to its authorities — that he will do “it” differently than Bush. A joke and a handshake with the “rebel” Hugo Chavez, or statements like “it’s up to the Iranian people to choose their president” and “America is not going to tell them who to vote for” stand for the Obama administration calling into question the with-us-or-against-us mentality that prevailed until recently as U.S. policy. Obama’s willingness to cooperate, stressed on all sides, is meant to leave no doubt that he distances himself from the catalog of tasks and strategies that his predecessor regarded as urgent for enforcing America’s claim to world leadership. He is declaring a break with the policies of George W. Bush.

Bush Jr. wanted to use the economic and military clout of the “only superpower remaining” — after a hot and a cold war — for establishing a “new world order,” for securing a conclusive American regime over the world of states. Al Qaeda’s attack on September 11, 2001, confirmed his suspicion that his predecessors had let slide the forming of fronts against all types of anti-American activities; and that the enforcement of a worldwide, American security order that would allow no resistance required no less than a new kind of world war. His “global war on terror” implemented his conviction that the deployment of a superior war machinery represents the only promising means for destroying America’s enemies and forcing the world of states into line. Bush’s diplomatic policy essentially consisted of imperatives, threats, and demonstrative ignorance and corresponded to the program of no longer being willing to tolerate insubordinate regimes and their troublesome national insistence on their own rights instead of accepting those assigned to them.

According to the new President, this anti-terrorist world-order policy has failed.

His review of the international ‘situation’ that summarizes the competition of nations comes to a rather devastating conclusion: terrorism is undefeated; other, key threats to national security, most notably the existence of nuclear instruments of power in foreign hands or the desire for them, were not tackled in a promising way; instead, nuclear proliferation is increasing; an open struggle over the distribution of energy resources and the rigors of climate is endangering growth and order; America’s allies are distancing themselves; old and new great powers are threatening to become rivals; the international oversight institutions are losing their function of enforcing the desired competitive order. The balance of power has been shifted to America’s disadvantage. The status of the United States as leading power is under attack, its ‘natural authority’ to dictate the proper use of force to the world of states is increasingly challenged; the credibility of its military in staging wars as lessons in the futility of resistance against America is severely damaged; the generous deployment of military force proves not to be a productive force for establishing an order beneficial to America. And now, in addition to everything the Bush administration messed up, the current, disastrous crisis is undermining the economic foundations of American world power.

Obama now plans to correct this ‘international situation’ that alarms America. The critical evaluation of the situation by the newly elected President at the same times makes clear the essential features of how he intends to restore and secure America’s ailing might. The “realism” that he prescribes to himself and his nation in place of the “ideological dogmatism” of the Bush administration sets new priorities and focuses on altered remedies:

Obama intends to scrutinize the national interests of foreign authorities as to whether and how they can be made compatible with American ambitions, instead of immediately suspecting the “regime” in question of anti-American activities.

He intends to take all the means at the disposal of the world power into account in a flexible way in order to push through America’s demands and avoid dangers to America, instead of sending the “best army in the world” into avoidable wars. “Smart power” is the new set phrase.

He banks increasingly on cooperation for ordering the world, on proven allies and new partners yet to be won, instead of alienating friends by going it alone or forcing up-and-coming rivals into confrontation. If a genuine danger requires the deployment of military force, this should be carried out effectively and with the aid of allies.

Obama wants to ensure that America finally recaptures leadership in all the “critical issues” concerning future global terms of business (energy security, new technologies, climate protection), instead of leaving responsibility and benefits to competitors.

And he seeks to return the institutions of the “international community” to being suitable instruments for American leadership.

The Obama administration serves up its “change” to the “nations and peoples of the world” as opportunities for all, summarizing it with the leitmotiv that from now on in American global politics, diplomacy is to regain the honorable place it deserves in the dealings between nations — as the “spearhead of foreign policy” (H. Clinton).[1] The message aims at a positive response, and Obama and the American world power that he now leads have gotten one: relief that the Bush line has pointedly taken its leave, combined with the hope that one’s own nation will now have an easier time keeping its opposing interests and power ambitions. And even the warning voices of opinion-makers who, here (Germany) and elsewhere, refer to inevitable new demands and extortionate offers from Washington — if only due to “pressure from the conservative opposition” — live on this political all-clear signal. After all, they do not criticize the illusions that focus on the “good” world politics of “credible” leaders, but ever constructively prepare their nation’s rank and file for potential disappointments.


[1] “I look forward to working with all of you to renew America’s leadership through diplomacy that enhances our security, advances our interests, and reflects our values.” (Hillary Clinton, Senate Confirmation Hearings for Secretary of State, January 13, 2009)

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