By Jonathan Power
The election of Barack Obama is perhaps America’s greatest achievement since the Declaration of Independence, and President George W. Bush, for all his missteps and misplaced conservatism, deserves a share of the credit. His decision to put two African Americans, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, in charge of America’s national security was a tremendous step forward that helped pave the way for the arrival of our new president.
The effect on the rest of the world of an African-American president will be stunning. No European nation (including Russia, with it’s revered part-black national poet, Pushkin) is within sight of electing a man of color as head of government, yet Europeans will be profoundly thankful that the America they began to hate these past eight years can now again be admired, even loved. Africa, needless to say, will be electrified. Asia will nod sagely, recalling that India, in modern times, has had a woman prime minister, a Muslim president, and now a Sikh prime minister.
The Middle East will rejoice too. Muslims have always had less hang ups about racial equality than Western Christians. Now they will expect to see a man who understands poverty and prejudice, and who will profoundly and instinctively understand the plight of the Palestinians. Perhaps he will really put America’s strength in motion to enable a two-state solution.
All the continents—including South America, where blacks and indigenous peoples remain largely powerless—will sense the importance of this victory.
Inevitably, the long-standing momentum of American foreign policy—given the weight of the bureaucracy, the power of the military-industrial complex (which Obama has written scathingly about), and the innate tendency of perhaps a majority of Americans to believe in “manifest destiny”—will be hard to change. And there will be undoubtedly immense resistance domestically: from a watchful media, from those with vested interests in free trade and industry, and from the sheer innate conservatism of a society where too many can’t even find Ukraine or Georgia on the map, much less Kenya or Indonesia.
Above all, Obama will take office with the enormous residue of the financial crisis to be cleaned up and a major worldwide recession to be avoided. Has he the courage to realize that the present federal budget must be sharply cut if he is going to make way for his health care and social reforms, and that in this time of stringency much of the savings must come from the inflated and misdirected defense budget?
The world needs not just a new Bretton Woods to revamp our global economic institutions, but it needs a United Nations that works in harmony (as it did in George H. W. Bush’s day when he partnered Mikhail Gorbachev in making the Security Council a place of unanimity). It needs an end to thinking and behaving as if the Muslim threat is as big and menacing as were the Soviets during the Cold War, as too many politicians, academics, and pundits have declared. The world needs major nuclear disarmament and a return to respect for multinational treaties that ensure peace. We need to finally come to grips with our dependence on oil and energize new solutions for clean energy. And we need a civilized, mature relationship with Iran.
There is much to do.
But for today, let us be thankful that President-elect Obama has, in this campaign, revealed his character—he has at a relatively young age found and mastered his own sense of gravity. Large tasks lie ahead, but one obstacle has already been overcome. So, thank you, Martin Luther King Jr.: “Peace at last. Thank God Almighty. Peace at last.”