Thursday, February 12, 2009

Obama on foreign policy

Obama's book (Audacity of Hope) give a very helpful understanding of his goals for the US into the future - but as well as the good, it also flags some areas to watch out for, and some areas where his capacity to achieve an ideal will be sorely tested.

His words place his ideological foundation squarely in the western liberal tradition. Yes, he is a "liberal" in the American understanding of the word - that is, about as near as they can get to left-wing - but I'm using the term in the philosophical sense. This means he is explicitly pro-capitalism: he says as much. In that context, his words paint a picture of government as being the mediator and director of capitalist forces for the benefit of the people. It has to be said, however, that Obama's expression of his ideals - and he does have a nobleness of spirit - at times verges on motherhood sentiment. With a politician's eye on appreciating the dichotomous perspectives of the everyman, it's easy to suspect his capacity to exercise a hard edge that is sometimes needed to force a lurch of society in the right direction. Still, in terms of both ethics and position on the left-right spectrum, he is the most promising president in a very long time, and it's hard to see America producing the likes of him very often at all.

His chapter on the American constitution gives a good insight into the basis for the general American vision; he looks to the constitution and founders as a kind of bible for the values of their political and social system - yet ultimately he recognises that the original model for government is not a perfect bedrock: more, a basis for an ongoing political discussion.

(His assessment might be reasonably accurate - unsurprisingly, he has taught constitutional law. However, it also reveals a flaw inherent in their model - that there is too little to stop the political discourse being hijacked by a sufficiently strong ideologue or power nexus, particularly in the face of plummeting public engagement in any political processes. Obama's personal credit, he has probably raised the political engagement of the general public to levels not seen in a few generations.)

And there are clear problems with Obama's exposition on America's relationship with the world. Yes, he has a solid understanding of the nature of American foreign policy, and its all-too-often deleterious consequences. He knows very well how America has time and again fuelled the fires of emnity around the world - hardly more so than in the very recent past. He understands

But two broad principles emerge from his discussion that mitigate against soundness in peace and international co-operation. The first is the age-old issue of ceding sovereignty to external organisations. A nation does this rarely, but with the notion that the real and upfront concessions are repaid by the more real and longer-term benefits. (The gradually evolving European Union is a good example of this: a very slow process in which an amount of sovereignty is yielded every once in a while, as pluses slowly emerge.)

The other notion that emerges is one that America's fundamental values are simply right or, at least, better than anyone else's, and that foreign policy just needs some - sometimes major - adjustment. First, as my wife is fond of telling me, knowing I am right - or my values are right - does not make it so. Second, that is not the way to foster international rapprochement.

Having said all this, I still think American could not have produced a more promising president.

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