November 8th, 2008

As the one actual foreigner® here, I must be the resident expert on the views of the 6bn of the world’s population who didn’t get to vote in the US presidential election. (But thanks for letting me butt in anyway.) So: will Obama undo Bush’s legacy and restore America to its previous prestige and hegemony?


Obama’s election has been welcomed everywhere except SFIK Russia. Berlusconi’s racist gaffe doesn’t say anything about Italy. But that’s for Barack Hussein Obama the man. He had to work hard to sell his oddball life to American electors as exemplifying the national myth of assimilation and making good. In the rest of the world (RW), he has been popular from the outset because he’s not a typical American. Bush is worse than the brand; Obama better. Obama has chosen to surround himself not with clean-faced provincial tyros but with old Washington hands who can get things done – Biden, Emanuel, Summers/Geithner. But by the same token, they are to a greater or lesser extent tainted in the RW’s eyes as past enablers of Bushism. The Obama administration won’t have the cachet of Obama himself.

The RW has had the sense to distinguish Bush from America. According to the latest Pew survey of global attitudes, confidence in Bush’s international leadership ranged from 56% in India to 3% in Turkey; in Western Europe from 30% in Britain to 7% in Spain.The opinion of Americans in general has stayed much higher: from 82% favourable in Japan to 17% in Turkey. But outside Asia, this number has still drifted lower everywhere by ten points or so. And fair enough; Americans elected Bush; they have only partly redeemed themselves by electing Obama. The soft power of US influence in the web of international institutions has been frittered away by the Bush administration’s contempt, indifference and bullying. Its rejection of science has sped up another process of rebalancing of America’s leadership in learning.

America’s position is also much worse in harder indicators. Its share of world production and assets has fallen. That was inevitable; but mismanagement has placed US financial stability at the mercy of China’s goodwill. Its energy security has gone down, again a process exacerbated by bad policy. Delay in facing up to climate change has made the crunch more painful, and the RW less likely to cut the USA any slack. Huge military expenditure has left the USA with the power to crush a host of imaginary enemies but not the ones it actually faces.

Sometime around 1991, shortly before fairly amicable splitting up of Czechoslovakia, I found myself talking to a group of Czechoslovak university rectors. I hit on a metaphor for their moral condition: the folk tale of the Sleeping Beauty. She had been, like the countries of the Soviet empire, bound in lethargy and illusion by the spells of wicked magicians. The enchantment breaks, and the young woman wakes up. But she does not wake up to the world of her memories. Time is not cheated; the light of day is harsh; the world has changed, and is indifferent to her pathetic story. Her hope of survival and happiness depends on her accepting that there is no going back.

I think this applies to the USA today. George Bush and Osama bin Laden have between them blown the American moment of hyperpower glory. Relative decline was as inevitable as in 1945, but while Truman, Acheson, and Marshall delayed it by trading hard for soft power in a web of new global and transatlantic institutions, Bush and the neocons accelerated it by hubris and stupidity. Obama’s administration will start with a lot of goodwill, but it should not mistake this for a willingness to put the clock back.

The always grandiloquent epithet “Leader of the Free World” now fails the giggle test. And Larry Summers would be a bad choice for a job that will involve a regular diet of humble pie.

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