This historic victory by Barack Obama is the first truly global election that has been celebrated by people around the world as if they had been voting participants. The reelection of George W. Bush in 2004 was also a national election with global reverberations, but it only aroused widespread feelings of fear and resentment around the world, and no sense of participation. What we are slowly learning is that the United States is the first global state, and as such, its elections become a global, as well as a national, event. From this perspective it is not surprising that peoples throughout the world follow American presidential campaigns and either cheer or lament their outcome. What may be still unappreciated is that for many societies these American elections seem to generate more interest and enthusiasm than do elections in their own country. Barack Obama’s landslide victory in the United States was without doubt an impressive achievement. It also restored international confidence in the health of the American body politic. It is worth noting that if peoples throughout the world had been enfranchised to vote in the American elections, the outcome would have been far more one-sided in Obama’s favor. Perhaps, someday the realities of political globalization will extend worldwide American voting rights, conferring actual rights as the foundation of an emergent ‘global democracy,’ but such a moment seems far off.
There are many reasons for most Americans to affirm Obama’s victory. It does represent a remarkable threshold of achievement for African Americans who have long borne the cruel burdens of racism. Beyond this Obama’s signature claim to lead the United States derived initially from his principled opposition to the Iraq War from its onset. His unconditional commitment to end American combat involvement in Iraq was extremely popular with voters, and will be tested in the months ahead as the politics of disengagement and withdrawal unfolds. Obama’s campaign effectively championed the theme of change and hope countering the mood of despair associated with the disillusionment after eight years of George W. Bush’s presidency as recently intensified by the sharp economic downturn. The Obama victory, above all, signaled to the world an American willingness to repudiate Bush militarist and unilateralist approaches to global policy. It also clearly expressed a willingness to address the financial meltdown and its economic fallout with policies helpful to the mass of Americans, and not just to Wall Street. This meant a long overdue reassertion of regulatory authority over markets and banks. There will be broad support among the American people for moving in these reformist directions, but the path will also be blocked at every stage by special interests that benefit from keeping things as they are. The joy of the moment risks becoming the disappointment of the hour as the pain, tensions, and intractability of this economic crisis become clear to the citizenrty. The opportunities for this new president are exciting, and seem attainable given his inspirational qualities of leadership. And yet we must realize that the challenges are daunting, perhaps beyond the capacity of any leader to meet successfully, at least in the short run. Time will tell, but what now prevails is an unprecedented mood of high and happy expectations. This will certainly bring a reformist resolve to Washington, but such a mood is fraught with peril. It can quickly give way to a sense of bitter disappointment, and can even give rise to charges of betrayal.
The most immediate foreign policy issues concern the war on terror, how to withdraw from Iraq and achieve stability in Afghanistan. Obama will undoubtedly do his best to end the American combat role in Iraq as soon as possible, more or less in accord with his promise of completing the process in 16 months. The success of this effort will depend heavily upon what recently semi-dormant Iraqi insurgent forces do during the initial stages of this withdrawal process, and this is impossible to foresee. Withdrawal is likely to go relatively smoothly if the contending forces in Iraq realize that the alternative to power-sharing accommodations and compromises would be a long and bloody civil war, but such an optimistic outlook may never materialize, and then what. The rapid removal of American troops is quite likely to lead to an immediate escalation of Iraqi violence as anti-government forces are tempted to test the will and capability of the Maliki government in circumstances where it is losing American support. If this latter scenario unfolds, it would exert considerable pressure on Obama to halt further withdrawals, or even reverse course. Under these conditions Obama would likely seek to avoid being charged with responsibility for a costly defeat in Iraq. Republican critics will undoubtedly will allege that such regression in Iraq would have been averted had the Bush/McCain policy of indefinitely prolonging the military engagement continued to guide American policy. As is always the case with foreign intervention in an unresolved struggle for national self-determination, uncertainty pervades any policy choice. Obama’s opposition to the undertaking of the Iraq War has long been vindicated, but whether his advocacy of rapid extrication is feasible under current conditions will remain uncertain during the months ahead. In light of these risks, Obama advisors may be tempted to pursue a more ambiguous policy path in Iraq by appearing to withdraw, but actually redeploying most of the American troops in the region, including the retention of a large military presence in Iraq. If Obama opts for such caution it may temporarily calm some conservative critics in Washington and the media but he will encounter sharp criticism from his legions of young supporters who did so much to elect him. How Obama decides to walk this tightrope between the political mainstream and his grassroots movement will shape the early months of his presidency, especially in foreign affairs.
Obama is simultaneously being challenged by a deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan that includes the revival of the Taliban, a weak central government in Kabul, and the mounting political difficulties of dealing with hostile cross border forces located in Pakistan. During the presidential campaign Obama pursued a centrist line on the war on terror by advocating an enhanced involvement of American military forces in Afghanistan without ever questioning whether this underlying ‘war’ should be ‘undeclared,’ and terrorism treated as elsewhere in the world, as a matter for law enforcement and intelligence operations, and taking full advantage of inter-governmental cooperation. Both Obama and McCain favored augmenting American troops on the ground in Afghanistan by at least 32,000. Obama contended that such a shift could be achieved without further straining the overstretched military by assigning some of the departing American forces from Iraq to Afghanistan. What is at stake here is Obama’s double view of the two wars, that the Iraq War was a wrong turn, whereas the Afghanistan War was a correct response to 9/11 but was not properly carried to completion primarily due to the diversion of attention and resources to Iraq. Obama wants to correct both mistakes of the Bush presidency, but at the same time he appears to subscribe to the major premise that declaring “a war on terror,” at least on al Qaeda, was the right thing to do, and that Afghanistan is a necessary theater of military engagement, including insisting upon and managing Afghan regime change. Obama has also made some threats about carrying out attacks in Pakistan, even without the consent of Islamabad, if reliable intelligence locates Osama Bin Laden or al Qaeda sancturaries.
What is most troublesome about according renewed attention to Afghanistan is its seemingly uncritical reliance on counterinsurgency doctrine to promote American interests in a distant foreign country. General David Petraeus has reformed counterinsurgency doctrine and practice in intelligent ways that exhibit a more sensitive appreciation of the need of American military forces to win over the population and be respectful toward the indigenous culture and religion, but it is still counterinsurgency. That is, it remains an intervention in internal political life by foreign military forces, which is inevitably an affront to sovereign rights in a post-colonial era of international relations. In practical terms, this means that a substantial portion of the Afghan people will probably view the American undertaking in their country with suspicion and hostility, and are likely to be supportive of resistance efforts. There is no doubt that the former Taliban regime was oppressive, as was Saddam Hussein’s regime, but it still remains highly questionable whether a sustainable politics of emancipation can be achieved by military means, and the effort to do so is at best extremely costly and destructive, and often lands intervening forces in a quagmire. This is the overriding lesson of the American defeat in Vietnam, which has yet to be learned by the foreign policy establishment. What has been attempted over and over again is to tweak counterinsurgency thinking and practice so as to make it succeed. It will be tragic if the Obama presidency traps itself on the counterinsurgency battlefields of Afghanistan. It would be far more understandable to mount a limited challenge to the al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but quite another to undertake the political restructuring of a foreign state. It should be chastening to reflect upon the fact that the British Empire, and even the Soviet state with its common border, failed in their determined attempts to control the political destiny of Afghanistan. It will be so sad if the promise of the Obama presidency is squandered as a result of a misguided and unwise escalation of American ambitions in Afghanistan.
The other immediate concern for the Obama presidency will be Iran. Obama was much criticized during the presidential campaign for his announced readiness to meet with leaders of hostile states, including Iran, without preconditions. It remains to be seen whether Obama will risk his currently strong international reputation by arranging an early meeting with President Ahmadinejad, especially devoted to ensuring that Iran’s nuclear program does not end up producing nuclear weapons. Such diplomacy would represent a gamble by both parties. If successful, it will demonstrate the wisdom of Obama’s approach, and could be the start of an encouraging regional approach to peace and security in the Middle East, especially if the Iraq withdrawal goes forward successfully, and even more so, if it comes that Iran helps to keep Iraq stable during the removal of American forces. But if such an initiative falters, as seems far more probable, then it will erode Obama’s capacity to bring about an overall change in American foreign policy, and it could even lead to heightened regional tensions, risking a widening of the war zone.
One golden opportunity for the Obama presidency is to reopen the question of nuclear disarmament. The atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 frightened world leaders about the future and created a momentary resolve to find ways to ensure that these weapons would never be developed further or used again. This resolve was soon dissipated by the Cold War rivalry, which expressed itself in part by a superpower arms race, as well as by the gradual acquisition of nuclear weaponry by additional countries. Not since the end of World War II has there been such a realization as at present that the future of world order is severely threatened by the existence and spread of these ultimate weapons of mass destruction. Favoring nuclear disarmament in the early 21st century is no longer just a peace movement demand that is not taken seriously in governmental circles. Nuclear disarmament has been recently endorsed by several eminent and conservative American political figures: Henry Kissinger, former Republican Secretary of State George Shultz, former Democratic Secretary of Defense William Perry, and former chair of the Senate Armed Forces Committee Sam Nunn. Their reasoning is set forth in two jointly authored articles published in the Wall Street Journal that are premised on realist approach to global security and shaped by a preoccupation with fulfilling American national interests. They argue that the gradual erosion of the Nonproliferation Regime makes the possession and existence of nuclear weapons by the United States far more dangerous than are the risks associated with their elimination by way of negotiated and monitored reductions. Both Obama and McCain expressed general support for a world free from nuclear weapons, but without proposing any specifics. Many observers of the international scene since the Soviet collapse have worried about such weapons falling into the hands of political extremists via the black market or through theft, especially given the ‘loose nukes’ contained in Russia’s poorly guarded arsenal of nuclear weapons. Similar worries have accompanied speculations that the government of nuclear Pakistan might be taken over by political elements with strong links to extremists. There is little doubt that an Obama call for a major conference of nuclear weapons states for the purpose of achieving total nuclear disarmament over a period of one or two decades would generate strong endorsements from most governments and great enthusiasm at the grassroots. Of course, achieving a consensus among the nine nuclear weapons states will not be easy, but the effort to do so if genuinely promoted by the United States, would be worthwhile. It would at the same time help Obama sustain his footing on the moral high ground of world affairs even should the effort become bogged down by disagreements. Putting nuclear disarmament high on the American policy agenda would also provide global civil society with an activist cause with wide transnational appeal.
There is at present lots of commentary acknowledging the changing geopolitical landscape: the rise of China and India, a resurgent Russia, the collective force of the European Union, and the leftward tilt of Latin America. Clearly the unipolar moment of the 1990s has passed, and it seems likely that the Obama presidency will go out of its way to affirm its recognition of a multipolar world. It will also exhibit a far more active reliance on the mechanisms of international cooperation than has been the case in recent years. The Obama leadership will also hopefully do its best to avoid pressures to revive the Cold War, as were evident in the neoconservative call for the defense of Georgia last August, or in its warning of the start of a new phase of international relations based on great power rivalry. A generally hopeful trend in world affairs, pioneered by Europe, is the rise of regionalism in Asia, Latin America, and Africa, which could produce new forms of cooperation and peacekeeping that might encourage Washington to accept a more modest global presence, which in turn would begin the difficult process of acknowledging that America’s existing overseas commitments had so far outrun its capabilities that it could no longer meet the domestic needs of its own population.
It is likely that this renewal of multilateralism will express itself in a more constructive approach to the United Nations as well as a determined effort to achieve a shared global strategy on climate change. Here, too, rhetorical promise may not be accompanied by corresponding action. The Obama presidency is likely to give an immediate priority to domestic issues, especially in view of the sharply falling economy that has already caused a credit crisis, housing foreclosures, widespread unemployment, huge fiscal deficits, and a declining national product. As a result, it would be almost currently impossible for any political leader to summon the political will needed to commit sufficient resources to deal effectively longer range global challenges. The overall American situation increasingly requires some serious structural moves, as well as crucial readjustments of policy. At present, there is no indication that either Obama or his advisors are thinking along these lines. There is no way that the United States can live up to the Obama promise, or more modestly, free itself from its current difficulties without at least taking the following fundamental steps: reducing its military expenditures by 50%, which means closing many foreign military bases, reducing drastically its global naval presence, and ending its program of nuclear defense and the militarization of space; it also means going all out for nuclear disarmament and the abandonment of counterinsurgency and preemptive/preventive war doctrines; and it would require an abrupt shift in economic policy from a reliance on capital-oriented neoliberalism to a people-oriented return to Keynesianism. Given the unlikelihood of moving decisively in these directions during this first Obama presidential term, it will be important to lower expectations so as to avoid cynicism and despair. At the same time critical independent voices must continue to call attention to these deeper challenges.
Richard Falk is Chair of the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (www.wagingpeace.org).