Restoration of lost goodwill and influence is Obama's challenge


OPINION: Economic, political, domestic and global – the real tasks ahead are interlocked and daunting, writes Paul Gillespie

GIVEN THE extensive international goodwill and high hopes attending Barack Obama’s inauguration yesterday, his central challenge is to communicate his foreign policy priorities and manage the expectations of change his election has generated around the world. The capacity to deliver results commensurate with those expectations will severely tax the abundant political skills shown in his victory.

He is, after all, elected as president of the United States with a mandate to represent its own interests and values, not as a cosmopolitan candidate who happened to be elected in the US with a universal legitimacy.

This is notwithstanding the fact that the 2008 election had a remarkable global reach, that he has a real global profile and that, with its first black president, the US now looks much more like a global nation.

Both he and his secretary of state Hillary Clinton repeatedly say US leadership should be restored, albeit in multilateral partnership rather than unilateral tension with other states. It remains to be seen how well that aspiration for renewed primacy will sit with the desire of other major international players and regions for a more equal relationship with the US in what is actually becoming a more multipolar world.

It will be easier for President Obama to restore international goodwill than the influence the US lost during the two Bush administrations since 2001. A BBC World Service poll published yesterday shows an average 67 per cent of people across 17 nations think he will improve relations with the rest of the world. But popular perception usually lags behind diplomatic practice in international affairs. It is not widely recognised that, in its second term, the Bush administration’s foreign policy shifted substantially towards a more co-operative stance, in contrast to the unilateralism of the immediate post-9/11 period in which the invasion of Iraq was centre stage.

The “war on terror”, the “axis of evil” and the associated “with us or against us” slogans of those years created a deep, although uneven, pattern of hostility in many parts of the world – as Bush observed last week, it was more apparent in Europe than in Asia.

From 2004, his administration was more involved in co-operative diplomacy on North Korea, Iran and with the European Union than previously. But the overhang of arrogant military unilateralism continued to determine popular attitudes, fed by the real, if diminishing, influence of interventionist neo-conservatism and Cheneyite nationalism on the administration’s second term.

That Obama is not Bush will therefore make a real difference to US foreign policy, even if there is a surprising continuity arising from these shifts. Political leadership can translate such goodwill into increased influence by timely and appropriate action.

But that also depends on capacity and resources. US influence and power were built up after the second World War, and then after the end of the cold war, through a combination of extraordinary economic, military and political strengths, both relative to other powers and absolutely ahead of them. That collective strength has substantially diminished during the Bush years because of its own mistakes and the independent development of other parts of the world.

It has been further – and dramatically – eroded by the rapidly developing credit crunch, financial crisis and economic meltdown engulfing its last year and months in office. This necessarily preoccupies the incoming Obama administration in both the domestic and international settings. The normal functional distinction between the two policy spheres breaks down in the severity of this crisis – and the BBC poll shows dealing with the financial crisis is much the biggest priority for people around the world.

Thus Obama will be setting simultaneous home and foreign policy agendas in dealing with the economic crisis. The scale of the problems is revealed in recent economic commentary showing his proposed $800 billion stimulus package will be quite inadequate to restore demand sufficient to guarantee full employment. During the boom, the economy was sustained by a uniquely favourable balance between external and internal balances that subsidised US consumer spending with Chinese and Asian savings.

Now that this has changed so dramatically, there is the prospect, as Obama puts it, that “potentially, we’ve got trillion-dollar deficits for years to come”. But an indefinite fiscal deficit of 10 per cent is unsustainable if it fails to restore employment and growth, including in the new greener economy he advocates.

If that is true, US foreign policy under Obama will become increasingly preoccupied with pressures from his own electoral constituency for more protectionist policies on exporting jobs and retrieving corporate taxation. Similar pressures elsewhere could make for a much more difficult international environment of protectionist nationalism and regionalism in the world economy, with inevitable spillover effects into political tensions and conflicts.

Obama therefore badly needs help from the rest of the world, notably from the strongest economic and political partners of the US. These are, first of all, the European states individually, and collectively through the European Union. There is a real opportunity for co-operative action to head off such a 1930s-like scenario. It is likely to combine close transatlantic economic co-ordination, an effort to develop joint political action on Afghanistan, Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a wider geopolitical reordering of international institutions to bring them much more into line with emerging world political realities.

East, southeast and south Asia will expect to be as fully involved in this process as the Europeans. Japan, China and India are to the fore and likely to work together through regional and global organisations.

The same will apply with Russia, Brazil, South Africa, Nigeria and Indonesia – all of them large states with substantial political and economic purchase in their regions and expectations that their international influence should be enhanced.

International climate change and development organisations also expect much greater and more sympathetic involvement from the Obama administration. The Copenhagen conference to create a successor regime for the Kyoto Protocol on global warming will project those priorities this year. African states will particularly hope Obama can help shore up their development with more energy and commitment.

His challenge between now and 2012 will be to orchestrate and manage expectations between these diverse political, economic and regional priorities around the world. His message of change is just as much global as domestic and it requires a daunting capacity to deliver in both settings.

Paul Gillespie is foreign policy editor of The Irish Times