Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Obama Charts New Course

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Sunday,  January 25 / 09

Zack Gross

The election of Barack Obama may usher in a new era of hope and change for America and, therefore, for the world. 

Those of us who have lived through the expectations and then disappointment of the Clinton era and, previously, the hopes and then tragedy of the Kennedy years, are likely feeling hesitant to make bold predictions of what will happen in the coming four or eight years.  Mr. Obama’s inauguration speech calls for a new, more peaceful and constructive role for the US in today’s world, and whether those pronouncements are achieved will be the measure of the man and his administration.

Early in his speech, delivered on January 20th in Washington to a live audience of two million and a multimedia audience likely of two billion, President Obama outlined the weaknesses now evident in America.  Its economy is failing:  “Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered”.  Health care is costly and schools are failing.  The nation is at war and US energy policy strengthens its enemies while threatening the planet.  Commentators marveled at how his speech was an indictment of recent stagnation of US policy in so many areas – science and technology, transportation, education, social policy – and yet he and George Bush parted company most amicably, at least on the surface, in what seemed a smooth transition of power.  “A nation cannot prosper long”, says Obama in his speech, “when it favours only the prosperous”.

In foreign policy, Obama says that American might does not entitle it “to do as we please”.  Unlike his predecessor, he says that the US must work with its allies and even with those who’ve opposed it in the past, to deal with issues of nuclear proliferation, climate change, human rights and global poverty.  Many will see his pledge to end torture, close Guantanamo and to pull out of Iraq as signs of putting diplomacy before military force.  He calls upon dictators to loosen their grip, upon the corrupt to come clean, and upon warring factions to build, not destroy.  He offers aid to those who change their ways.  To his own nation, which enjoys “relative wealth”, he says “we can no longer afford indifference to the suffering outside our borders, nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect - for the world has changed, and we must change with it.  This is the price and the promise of citizenship.”

There is no doubt that during the Bush era, US global responsibility seemed limited to a military role and much less to supporting initiatives aimed at most threats to our planet’s welfare.  America, in comparison to its “relative wealth”, put very little into combating climate change and HIV/AIDS, or into achieving the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals.  Indeed, the “science” of climate change was questioned, AIDS was often seen as retribution for poor lifestyle choices, and the UN was accused of being corrupt, bloated and anti-American.  It will be interesting to see how these attitudes change in a new political era, and how steps initiated by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton affect our own Canadian government’s stand on global issues.

Mr. Obama’s inaugural speech, of course, has a “liberal” bias.  He owns an 82% public approval rating as he takes power and with that come great expectations.  The great majority of Americans want change and he has outlined his vision for that renewal.  To his political right, as he says in his speech, “cynics” will say that he is too ambitious and too committed to the idea of a stronger role for government in American society.  But, while Obama’s talk rings of a new-found sense of self-analysis and co-operation, it still puts the US at the forefront:  “We are ready to lead once more”, “We will defeat you” and (our) “ideals still light the world”. 

As well, Obama harkens back to the American forefathers who fought the revolutionary war, created the nation, “settled the West” and so on.  An open question is: how much of the American past and its development actually causes the economic, social and environmental ills that now beset it – both internally and globally – today.  Can the US understand and come to terms with slavery and racism, with the dispossession and eradication of many aboriginal peoples, and with the effects of greed that must be seen as part of American – as well as Canadian and others people’s – development, that hold a place in our psyche as much as virtue and courage do?

The new American President is smart, ambitious, charismatic and ready to bring about significant change to his country – to make a better nation and, thus, a better world.  If we didn’t think he cared, or if we didn’t think he had a chance, we likely wouldn’t pick through his speeches.  It is said that when George W. Bush was inaugurated the first time, few people got excited because the election was still in dispute.  The second time, only a segment of the population was pleased while the majority was disenfranchised or disappointed. 

Now, with true anticipation, the world awaits.

Zack Gross coordinates a provincial fair trade outreach program for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of 38 international development organizations.
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