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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