On November 10, 2008, the letters section of the
International Herald Tribune carried the following comments
by a reader from Ottawa called Mahmood Elahi: "With Obama in
the White House, we are now all Americans." The
identification of so many around the world with Americans as
a result of Barack Obama's rise to the helm has raised the
prospects of a United States that is more liked than hated.
This would reverse a decades-long fall in the country's
international image. From being perceived as the world's
bully and biggest threat to peace during the George W Bush
era, the US under Obama is passing through a honeymoon with
opinion that has lasting promise.
According to the latest global poll conducted by the Program
on International Policy Attitudes at the University of
Maryland, which questioned 13,575 people in 20 countries
America in 10 weeks, the US's positive
rating rose five points, to 40%, while negatives dipped four
points to 43%.
In a similar poll a year ago, respondents had leaned towards
Russia, saying that they had a more
positive influence in the world than the US. But the trends
are now reversed, with China being rated negatively by 40%
(up by seven points from 2008), compared to 39% who viewed
it positively (down by six points).
People carrying a negative impression of Russia rose to 42%
(up by eight points from 2008), while those with a positive
view of it fell five points to just 30%.
That there is an "Obama effect" on these shifts in global
perception is undoubted. The new American president has
promised to listen more and lecture less, to be humble
rather than arrogant, and to "work alongside" people in
developing countries rather than above them. This has been
music to the world's ears.
The Obama administration's conciliatory opening gestures
towards Iran, Russia,
Cuba and even North Korea have changed the
way the US was dreaded and despised in many corners of the
planet. That the US can be a force for good was always a
theoretical possibility, but to see some of that potentially
coming alive in the language and policy of the Obama
administration is heartening.
Some realist strategic thinkers are now ironically proposing
that what is heartening to the publics of the world is
actually a cause for concern to their governments. An
Australian scholar of Chinese origin, John Lee, wrote
recently that Obama presented a challenge to China's foreign
policy because he "seeks to continue protecting and
extending America's leadership role in the world - which
Beijing believes to be to its detriment".
Claiming that "Beijing is wary of attractive presidents who
may replenish the reserves of US leadership and influence in
the world", Lee said that Obama had turned the US around and
was positioning it as the most popular great power.
Lee also makes an important strategic observation that under
Bush, "America became distracted by war", enabling China to
"make tremendous gains in Asia". Obama, on the other hand,
is close to declaring a formal end to the so-called "war on
Influential New York Times columnist Roger Cohen has
announced that for Obama, "the war on terror is over,
terminated", leaving only a subsidiary task of defeating
some terrorist organizations.
Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration's envoy to
Afghanistan, and General James Jones, the
new US national security adviser, both contributed to a new
study recommending that Washington declare a formal end to
Bush's "war on terror" and negotiate with "moderate" Taliban
members who are willing to leave the Islamist extremists and
While Lee's contention that China should be shivering from
Obama's repudiation of the "war on terror" might be debated,
it does signal that the US is making all the right moves to
secure a global leadership role. It is therefore no wonder
that the American contingent at the 45th Munich Security
Conference last week was the most looked up to.
When US Vice President Joseph Biden stepped onto the stage,
an audience comprising some 350 top politicians and security
experts from more than 50 countries gave a resounding
reception. According to the German newspaper Der Spiegel,
Biden reportedly stole the show and was the "star guest".
If a reconfirmation is needed that Obama has built up
unprecedented "soft power" for the US, one could analyze the
fallout from his prescribed pay caps for the bosses of
corporations receiving state bailouts. Within a week of
Obama's famous remark decrying the fact that self-indulgent
bonuses for chief executive officers (CEOs) could be
dependent on government lifelines as "shameful", European
leaders emulated him by reining in their CEOs and trading
A cue was taken from Obama, and then had enough attraction
to sweep across Europe. A director of MM&K, an executive
compensation consultancy based in London, captured the
essence of this effect very precisely to the International
Herald Tribune: "I think Barack Obama has picked up on the
mood of the world in what he says about greed."
For the moment at least, Obama has his finger on the popular
pulse, not only in the US but overseas. What he has achieved
in his few weeks in office is enough to make the world
believe that the US has leadership qualities and should be
trusted with them. What remains to be done is for him to
translate rhetoric into more diplomatic action.
Should Washington succeed in entering into a mutually
satisfactory agreement with
Moscow about reducing their unfeasibly
large nuclear arsenals, it will be a step in the right
direction for the grand objective of universal nuclear
Should Washington succeed in winding down its colony of
military bases across the world, it would send a positive
message that US foreign relations will no longer be
conducted with guns pointed at the heads of other
The deteriorating economic crisis in the Western world is a
blessing in disguise if it can speed up the closure of the
unnecessary American bases in far-flung areas of the world
that only build up resentment and anger against it. For
starters, many of the bases acquired in the name of the "war
on terror" have nothing to do with existing threats in
Pakistan and Afghanistan, and can be exited without any
A more ambitious reform that Obama could spearhead to cement
the US's global leadership is to build a new "Bretton Woods
II" system to regulate international finance. While the
Group of 20 summit in November 2008 in Washington was
labelled by the media "Bretton Woods II", the lackadaisical
and uninspiring role played by the George W
administration meant that the conference
did not live up to the tag.
Obama's contribution to a new world economy that is ordered
not on dogmatic neo-liberalism but on principles of
corporate transparency and accountability would be a lasting
one, if he attempts it.
The saying that the world catches a cold when Washington
sneezes is playing out all too worryingly in the current
economic meltdown. What Obama has brought to the stage is a
chance that the world catches a healthier wind when
Washington takes a deep breath.
Sreeram Chaulia is a researcher on international
affairs at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public
Affairs in Syracuse,