The Obama Effect: a Rebirth of Global Politics

We are hanging out here at an improvised Clubhouse of Candid Social Democratic Statesmen.

The drift of the conversation is that the global crisis is a mix of comeuppance and liberation. The crisis is surely an end of something, reminiscent of the fall of the Berlin Wall; it marks perhaps equally a rebirth of citizenship as a relief from consumership. The game here — with the retired chieftains of Chile and Italy, both professors-at-large at Brown University — is to see ourselves in the world “as others see us.”

It is very bad. What I think is that the origin of the crisis is Americans in the United States living beyond their standard of living; and the fact that there is a tremendous deficit now that has to be financed. Someone else has been financing the deficit and that has mainly been China… Alan Greenspan has to recognize that he was wrong when he thought the financial system could be self-regulated… Because of the crisis it is necessary to think in a different way. Very similar to what happened here in this country 80 years ago with Roosevelt, there are going to be new regulations to solve the crisis, and this is what we are in the middle of.

Ricardo Lagos in a Watson Institute conversation with Chris Lydon at Brown University, April 7, 2009.

Romano Prodi put the repair — the reconception, really — of the US – Russia relationship on the top of his priority list. The point, he suggested, is to bury not just the Cold War but the polarizing, triumphalist mindset that grew up around it and lived beyond it. When I asked if he could imagine Barack Hussein Obama changing the world’s view of Islam, Prodi said: he’s already half-way there:

You know, the relationship to the Islamic world vis-à-vis the American president today has nothing to do with [the relationship that existed] a few months ago… He was, in my opinion, very brave vis-à-vis the American public opinion to open the dialogue with Iran… So, I think that if the dialogue goes on, the relations with the Islamic countries will change completely. Certainly not with the terrorists who are out of any control—you will need time, generations. But I think that with the Islamic world as a general entity he has already changed the situation. Already he has changed expectations. You listen. This is already a great change. I am confident that some results may come. For the Israeli-Palestinian conflict you need to create an atmosphere before, but even for that conflict, if you create the atmosphere, you have chances to solve the problem.

Romano Prodi in a Watson Institute conversation with Chris Lydon at Brown University, April 7, 2009.

Ricardo Lagos of Chile and Romano Prodi of Italy are the statesmen on hand: progressives, hatched as oppositionists, both famous for candor and then some. Ex-president Lagos was a spearpoint of the “No” movement in Chile, the man who pointed his finger at Augusto Pinochet in 1989 and said: you will not give us “another eight years of tortures, murders and human-rights violations” — and lived to tell about it. Romano Prodi, leading the not-Berlusconi alliance in Italy, won the prime minister’s office in 1996 and again in 2006.

In a crazy-quilt of talk that touched on the Armenian question in Turkey; cocaine-and-gun tunnels on the US-Mexico border; the expansion of the G-8 to the G-20 in what may be in truth a G-2 boardroom of the US and China; the US opening to Iran; and the chance of burying the Cold War mindset along with the Cold War — the thread through it all was the “Obama Effect” on global reality. And the consensus between the two professors-at-large before a full house at Brown was that the arrival of Barack Obama on the world stage is very like a miracle, a late vindication of resiliency and openness in American society, a new start for politics, a world-historical opportunity.

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    OpenSourceRadio: ” . . . the arrival of Barack Obama on the world stage is very like a

    miracle, a late vindication of resiliency and openness in American society, a new start for politics, a world-historical opportunity.”


    From Commentary Magazine’s “Contentions” Weblog:

    No Room For The U.S. Under That Bus

    During his maiden trip overseas, we learned many things about President Obama. Among the most troublesome, I think, was the ease and eagerness with which he criticized the country he represents. In the words of the Daily Telegraph, “[Obama’s] speech in Strasbourg went further than any United States president in history in criticising his own country’s action while standing on foreign soil.”

    To be sure, Obama did it in the fashion we have come to expect: he both praised and criticized the United States and chastised America and Europe, hoping to portray himself as a detached, disinterested commentator on world affairs. As a matter of practice, he aims his barbs at his predecessors — never by name, always by implication; mostly President Bush but, when necessary, even President Truman. His aides would have us believe that this is simply a tactical matter: Obama is engaging in “balanced” criticism of the United States in order to make us more popular in Europe and the rest of the world. And, we are to believe, this will eventually translate into concrete progress in areas that matter. . . .

    What leaves me with a queasy feeling, though, is the growing sense that Obama is willing to denigrate America in order to boost his own personal popularity in other countries. As President, Obama has a responsibility to explain and interpret America to the rest of the world — in a way that is truthful and corresponds to reality for sure, but in a way that explains his country and its history and actions. . . .

    At convenient points on his overseas trip President Obama purposefully disfigured reality in a way that reflected poorly on America. That is to say, an American president played up cartoon images of the United States in order to get foreign audiences to applaud him. It is rare for the leader of a nation to revise history in order to make his nation look worse. But for Obama, the upside — making himself look good — is an easy trade-off. One senses that when it comes to Obama, it is all, and always, about him.

    In thinking about Obama’s trip, I was reminded of the words of another Democrat, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, who said this:

    “Am I embarrassed to speak for a less than perfect democracy? Not one bit. Find me a better one. Do I suppose there are societies which are free of sin? No, I don’t. Do I think ours is, on balance, incomparably the most hopeful set of human relations the world has? Yes, I do.”

    It is almost inconceivable to think of former Democrat, Ronald Reagan, going overseas and criticizing America in the manner Obama did, especially for baseless reasons. (Reagan wouldn’t criticize the United States for the Vietnam War, calling it a “noble cause” in the 1980 campaign and driving his liberal critics into a lather.) One may disagree with the Iraq war on the merits, but it was not a war waged because of arrogance. It was, in fact, a war of liberation (though that was certainly not the sole justification for the war). And Iraq today is, in fact, liberated.

    As one might expect, President Obama is executing his game with panache and skill; he is far too smooth and politically smart to lacerate America in a manner that would come across as clumsy and obviously offensive. He would rather speak in an elliptical manner, with a wink and a nod to a knowing audience, to communicate in sub-text as well as through text. But the goal is the same: to elevate himself at the expense of his country, to say (in so many words) that he is better than it. This isn’t the worst thing a President can do, but it is bad enough.

    –Posted By Peter Wehner, April 9, 2009

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