WARSAW — For eight years, U.S. President George W. Bush has managed to incarnate and reinforce all the prejudices and negative stereotypes the world has of the United States. He has antagonized the world more than any other American president before him, seriously damaging America’s “soft” power by inefficient and excessive use of its “hard” power.
Reconciling the U.S. with itself and the world should thus be the twin priorities for America’s next president. If there is one candidate who can accomplish this, who can contribute, in a split second, to restoring America’s international reputation, it is Barack Obama.
Exceptional periods sometimes create exceptional leaders. Without the French Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte would have remained a gifted and frustrated junior military officer. Likewise, the current period in America and its relations with the world have been truly exceptional, requiring a leader who can fundamentally challenge a global majority’s view that America has become arrogant, impotent and selfish.
Of course, die-hard anti-Americans will never be persuaded, but they remain a minority, with the possible exception of the Muslim world. The silent majority is ready to hope for life after Bush.
Why is Obama so different from the other presidential candidates, and why could he make such a large difference internationally? After all, in foreign policy matters, the next president’s room for maneuver will be very small. He (or she) will have to stay in Iraq, engage in the Israel-Palestine conflict on the side of Israel, confront a tougher Russia, deal with an ever more ambitious China, and face the challenge of global warming.
If Obama can make a difference, it is not because of his policy choices, but because of what he is. The very moment he appears on the world’s television screens, victorious and smiling, America’s image and soft power would experience something like a Copernican revolution.
Think of the impression his election would make not only in Africa, but in Asia, the Middle East, and even Europe. With its rise to global supremacy, America had become the incarnation of the West, and the West was seen as “white.” Power in America shifted first from the East Coast to the West Coast, and then to the South. But if a shift across America’s racial divide is not truly revolutionary, then what is?
Of course, to reduce Obama to the color of his skin is a grave oversimplification, even if he has been keen to emphasize his “black roots.” In fact, African-Americans do not fully support him. With his white mother and his African father, he does not fit any African-American precedent.
But that is another reason why Obama is exceptional: the complexity of his identity makes him truly universal, a global candidate for a global age. By virtue of his unique personal history, he can bridge Africa, America and even Asia — where he studied as a young boy in a Muslim school — thereby reviving the universal image and message of America.
But, above all, what makes Obama unique, given what the U.S. has been through during the Bush years, is the nature of the message he embodies, which is best summed up in the title of his book “The Audacity of Hope.” If America can move from a culture of fear to one of hope — and again incarnate hope for the world — it will require a leader who embodies the American dream: modern and armed with a humanistic religious message, in contrast to the anxious irrationalism of the Christian conservative movement that fueled Bush’s political base.
Regardless of whether Obama can deliver on his promises, America will not regain the stature it had between 1941 and 2000. With or without Obama, the “American century” will not be repeated. But Obama can learn from the early mistakes made by former President Jimmy Carter in the mid-1970s. Neo-isolationism is not an option, but restraint — based on confidence and wisdom — is.
The world needs a more modest and confident America. For a European who has been deeply troubled and saddened by America’s evolution in the last decade, Obama, of all the declared presidential candidates, seems to come closest to incarnating such an America.
Dominique Moisi, a founder and senior adviser at the French Institute for International Relations, is a professor at the College of Europe in Natolin, Warsaw. Copyright 2007 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)
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