The man who will lead the world?

Updated On: Nov 08, 2008

In times of crisis, Obama could be the global leader the world needs
Weekend • November 8, 2008
Simon Tay

AMERICANS made history this week when they elected Mr Barack Obama as their 44th president and sent a black man to the White House. But did they also elect a man who will leave an indelible mark on the world as a global leader?

The opportunity is there. The world today quite desperately needs leadership. There are multiple crises that Mr Obama himself recognised in his victory speech, eloquently but succinctly: “Two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century”.

Many hope the United States might offer leadership as it so often has since the end of World War II. Even now,despite its influence diminishing inthe last years of the Bush presidency, there is still neither an equal nor areplacement.

The expectation is there. The world has watched the US elections andMr Obama with more than curiosity about the prospect of the first black president. His background includes a father from Kenya and a stepfather who brought the young Obama to live in Indonesia. This gives hope that he might be a leader with an instinctive connection to the world. He amplified that hope by promising to make the US a more multilateral power and to engage on important issues that Bush has neglected, like climate change.

Polls have shown that if votes were taken across Asia, from Indonesia to China, or the wider world, Mr Obama would have won by an even wider margin.

An informal vote at a talk organised by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs three weeks before the election showed Mr Obama winning 75 per cent support from the some 200 participants who came, whether American or Singaporean.

But the opportunity and hope for global leadership can be challenged by the nature of his office. While the American president is inevitably a world figure, he has to be first and foremost the President for the United States and national perspectives are not always consonant with global opinion.

Three factors may keep President Obama focused on domestic issues, rather than offering global leadership.

The first is Beltway politics. This mentality places the White House not in the context of the world, but the circumscribed map of the highway that rings the American capital. Top of the Beltway agenda is dealing with Senate and Congress, media and opinion-makers.

While the Democratic Party won clear majorities in House and Senate,Republicans will try to find ways to come back. With their majority, Democrats may also be tempted to push through an ambitious and contentious agenda that will be resisted.

In his victory speech, President-elect Obama recognised the need to reach beyond the partisanship of Democratic blue and Republican red to ensure that there are no blue and red states, but only a united states of America. He must try to govern from the centre of American politics, while keeping his supporters on board.

The second factor is the enduring American adage that all politics is local. Not global. Coined by the late and long-serving Democratic speaker of the House, Tip O’Neil, this bears remembering. While there are global crises, it is their manifestations in America which drive responses to see global issues through a lens that looks at America first and only.

If so, the Iraq war is not a question of regional and global stability but only about American lives and resources. The complexities of Afghanistan would be reduced to the need to guard America against future terrorism. The search for an enduring global financial system and growth would be viewed as the need to protect American jobs, even if that means putting up new barriers to trade and investment.

An American first and only perspective may not preach isolationism. But it would mean that engagement with the world is kept to the minimum and only for the calculus of America’s narrow self-interest.

Much depends on the mood of the American people.

For while America has been the key global actor, many citizens are uncomfortable with globalisation. Many heed the warning of founding father Jefferson to beware of foreign engagements. Many, especially from small towns in the south and middle of America, have little experience of travelling outside their own, continental-sized country. Some blame their economic woes on jobs lost to China or India.

It is here that many will hope that President Obama will provide inspiration and true leadership. At times of global crisis, national leaders have written themselves into history not simply by asking what is in it for themselves and their own country.

They have sought answers for the world as a whole. They have not neglected their own country and people. But they recognise the interdependence of the world and of humanity. Mr Obama may already be halfway there.

In his campaign, candidate Obama appealed broadly to a diverse electorate of Americans. In his victory speech, when he identified the pressing global challenges, President-elect Obama said: “We as a people will get there”. The people he addressed were in Chicago, his home state, and he explicitly meant the American people.

But the challenges he listed are global. And from his background and attitudes, there can be hope that when he takes office and begins to address these issues, President Obama and the US will indeed offer global leadership in a multilateral context to include not only Americans, but all people.

Simon Tay
About the author: 

The writer is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. He will be in the US next year as a Schwartz Fellow of the Asia Society and visiting professor at Yale University.