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     Feb 11, 2009

Obama sparks US image makeover
By Sreeram Chaulia

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 world public 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 including in Central 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 China and 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 terror".

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 Pakistan and 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 al-Qaeda.

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 room dealers.

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 disarmament.

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 governments.

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 strategic loss.

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 Bush 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, New York.

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