Siddharth Varadarajan

Can Obama’s victory change America enough to make a difference to the world?

It is a measure of the enormous damage George W. Bush has wrought on the image and stature of the United States of America during the eight years of his presidency that President-elect Barack Obama reserved a small part of his victory speech on Tuesday night to deliver a message to the rest of the world. To all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, he said, a new dawn of American leadership was at hand.

If it was Mr. Obama’s promise to renew America’s compact with its own citizens that saw him sweep the elections, people around the world enthusiastically backed his candidacy in the hope that he would bring an end to the cult of militarism and antidiplomacy surrounding American foreign policy. Not only was the Illinois senator an early critic of President Bush’s invasion of Iraq but he also strongly came out against some of the other excesses of the Bush regime such as the use of torture and the indefinite detention of terror suspects without hope of trial in black holes like Guantanamo. On Iran, he struck a contrarian and even bold note by calling for dialogue with the Islamic Republic. To be sure, he always kept the veiled fist of “military options” against Tehran within sight and pulled his punches when it came to Israeli crimes. But the world was willing to overlook these flaws because the American establishment would have dismissed him as “unelectable” otherwise.

This impression of Mr. Obama as a vehicle for radical international change was always a little problematic because it reflected the projection of unrealistic hopes and aspirations onto the Democratic contender rather than any serious assessment of the willingness of the American system to deal with the world in a new manner. Nevertheless, if the beacon of American leadership, to use Mr. Obama’s words, is still to burn bright, the President-elect will have to demonstrate his capacity to change U.S. policy in ten crucial areas. All of these are doable and do not require any radical change in terms of political economy.

Iran: The most serious challenge Mr. Obama will have to confront is the Iranian nuclear issue. Not because Tehran is developing nuclear weapons to date, there is no evidence of this but because the Bush administration has put the world on a slow escalator to confrontation and a way needs to be found to reverse this process. President Obama must begin a bilateral dialogue with the Iranians covering all areas and move slowly towards the kind of ‘grand bargain’ which is needed to resolve the nuclear issue and all outstanding regional disputes.

Israel: Notwithstanding the strong support he has professed for the Zionist state, President Obama will have to find a way to break with Washington’s pernicious indulgence of Tel Aviv as the latter clears the ground quite literally — for the imposition of an unjust, final settlement on the Palestinians.

Iraq: A clear timetable for withdrawal of American forces coupled with a firm assurance that the U.S. is not seeking any kind of military presence beyond that date is the minimum needed to undo the damage the U.S. has inflicted on Iraq. In addition, President Obama must convene a conference of Iraq’s neighbours, including Iran and Syria, and other powers willing to assist the war-ravaged nation, and must undertake to provide the funds needed for the rehabilitation of its infrastructure.

Afghanistan: The military surge envisaged by Mr. Obama will provide at best only temporary respite to the Karzai regime and may even make matters worse if the use of force continues to take place in a reckless manner. If a solution to the Taliban insurgency is to be found, it must involve a smart combination of focussed, and preferably Afghan-led counter-insurgency operations, a renewed focus on development and a greater emphasis on a regional approach involving Iran, Russia, India and China.

Pakistan: The war in Afghanistan cannot be won so long as the Pakistani military seeks to benefit from maintaining a long-term investment in the Taliban. The answer lies not so much in airstrikes on insurgents in FATA as in an end to the tacit American backing of the Pakistani military’s political ambitions. Mr. Obama has promised he will do this but he will first have to overcome the institutional interests of the Pentagon, which has made its own long-term investment in the army establishment there.

War on terror: On paper at least, ending the Bush policy on torture and detention should be one of the easiest steps Mr. Obama can take as president. But he must be prepared to go the next step and ensure criminal responsibility is fixed on those officials who sanctioned the violation of international humanitarian law.

Russia: One of the most corrosive legacies of the Bush administration is Washington’s ruined relationship with Moscow. The Georgian crisis is just the symptom of a deeper malaise caused by the steady, deliberate pressure the U.S. has mounted in its attempt to corral a rising Russia. But the strategy has backfired. Rebuilding confidence rather than reviving the Cold War will be a key challenge for the new administration.

Arms race: Even though it seems as if the U.S. has gone too far down the road to reverse course on missile defence, a President committed to arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament would find ways to end the new arms and missile race which has been triggered. Apart from pushing the ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, Mr. Obama should scrap the reliable replacement warhead and build on the recent Kissinger et al proposal for the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Global economy and global commons: The financial crisis offers the U.S. and the world an opportunity to better understand the inverse relationship between economic inequality and economic stability. Crafting a balanced, redistributive solution which does at the global level what Mr. Obama has promised Americans domestically would go some way towards stabilising the global economy while providing basic food security to all. The President-elect is also committed to a more responsible approach to cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Delivering on his promises, especially via a more rational energy policy, would give a huge boost to international efforts to deal with climate change.

Latin America: If opposition to the democratic aspirations of people in Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador and other Latin American countries was the hallmark of the Bush administration, Mr. Obama has a historic opportunity to change course. He also needs to end his country’s illegal embargo of Cuba and accept, once and for all, the right of that proud island nation to its own economic and political system.

None of these ten areas requires a revolution in American policy. All they need is a measure of rationality, common sense and a willingness to change. Can Obama do it? He must, if he wants to redeem his promise to his own people. For just as one “cannot have a thriving Wall Street while Main Street suffers,” America will remain embattled and threatened and buffeted by economic crisis as long as the world on which it wants to shine a beacon remains a violent and unjust place.

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