By Madhav Das Nalapat
November 1, 2009
November 1, 2009
Although there has been some mockery of the Nobel Committee's award of the Peace Prize to US President Barack H Obama, the choice was a recognition of a reality that has been obscured since World War II: which is that the true strength, the power, of the US vests not in its weapons or in its armies, but in the syncretistic values of the American people. Globally, across practically every country, significant elements of the population have adopted culture systems that can be sourced to the US. Even the international link language - English - has altered, becoming much more flexible and accepting of words and even phrases from other languages. While such a transfer took place in the past as well, such a "dilution" of English was seen as a deviation from the "norm”, which was accepted to be the language as spoken by a handful of individuals. In other words, the exception was taken as the standard. Today, it is accepted that this very adaptability of modern English is its greatest strength, and one of the primary reasons why its use is spreading across the world.
What has defined America (as the US is known)? Not its use of atomic bombs in 1945 or the collateral damage caused by bombing Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian hamlets with napalm and Agent Orange in the 1970s. Not the obduracy over retaining the post-1990 UN sanctions in an Iraq where more than six hundred thousand children died because of the shortages caused by them. And finally, not by the criminal greed of a few well-placed individuals, that caused four trillion US dollars of value to disappear, without any penal consequences for those responsible. Nearly $1.3 trillion was lost by investors in the Middle East alone, individuals who had placed their trust in the presumed integrity of US and EU banking and financial institutions. The list is long, but it is not this America that Barack Obama brings to mind.
Rather, it is the America that has ever welcomed innovation and immigration. TheAmerica that freely takes from the rest of the world and melds with its own culture. TheAmerica that has - often through the brainpower of those born elsewhere – given not just the majority of the world's significant scientific and technological breakthroughs, but its music, arts, literature and other aspects of culture. Rather than the Pentagon, it isHollywood that has won the only battle worthwhile in the long term, which is that for hearts and minds. Indeed, the dissonance between US strategy and the military tactics deployed to meet its goals is usually so severe that several operations have the effect of morphine, in that they appear successful in the short run, but create severe problems afterwards.
President Obama has distanced himself sharply from Candidate Obama, including by culling his staff of those who had helped craft his victory in favor of a generous dose of those who served the Clinton presidency. Not surprisingly, several domestic policies being pursued by the new team seem to be warmed-up versions of those sought to be implemented during 1993-2001. In foreign policy as well, although there have been alterations in emphasis, overall the "Obama" policy has hewed very close to the Europeanist vision of Clinton-Gore. In the 1990s, this linking up of US interests with those of the EU led to policies that caused the drift away of Russia. Now, a similar obsession with Europe is leading to stands that could see the drift away from the US of Japan as well as a new (George W. Bush-era) ally, India. Only if President Obama returns to the idealism and values of Candidate Obama will the promise of his election be realized. The Nobel Committee, whether accidentally or not, has provided an encouragement to the charismatic Kenyan-American to return to his ideological roots.
Barack Obama got elected because of the qualities that have underpinned the spread of American soft power worldwide. First is the ready acceptance of the other, and the ability to integrate that "other" into one's own dynamic. Next is the optimism of a people that have overcome civil war, social conflict and much else to become the world's most significant power. Although at no stage has the globe been "unipolar" (and US travails in Vietnam in the 1970s, Lebanon in the 1980s, Somalia in the 1990s and Afghanistan this century illustrates that), Obama's stated acceptance of the limits of the US ability to change dynamics elsewhere indicates a realism that has been absent from US policymaking since the successful conclusion of the 1939-45 war. Should President Obama feel himself able to shed the Clinton policy cloak in which he has wrapped himself since his 2009 inauguration, he has the opportunity to ensure that the influence of the US remains higher than that of its closest challenger, China, for decades to come.
Although Samuel Huntington placed greater emphasis on the "threat" from Islam, the reality is that the Western world faces the greatest threat to its primacy from the Sinic civilization centered within what is now the People’s Republic of China. The Sinic peoples have enjoyed primacy for at least two millennia in the past, and seem set to reclaim that status well before the conclusion of the first half of this century. The question is: Will the rise of China result in a repeat of the previous four centuries of conflict between emerging and emergent powers, or will there be a Win-Win situation? Should the interlinkages between China and the US continue the way they have developed since Mao Zedong tilted to Washington in the 1970s as a counter to Moscow, the relationship between the US and China may develop in almost as close a fashion as that between the US and the EU, provided neither country acts in a manner that severely degrades the strategic security of the other.
Judging by his writings and his campaign speeches, President Obama would like the USto participate in creating an architecture of cooperation in the world, by increasing the benefits of conciliation and cooperation to countries that would otherwise turn hostile. Such a strategy mandates the provision of incentives, including fair treatment of the weaker power rather than a bludgeoning of it to conform to a procrustean bed of perceived US interests. Equally importantly, there needs to be a separate series of policies that would sharply raise the cost of non-compliance. Both the carrot as well as the stick need to be created, as just one without the other will not generate an "equilibrium" situation that would last past the medium term.
President Obama has the opportunity - as the first US Head of State in the 21st century - to set a course for US policy different from that in evidence since 1945, which is a reliance on military and economic muscle to seek "compromises" that are in fact surrenders by the other side. Had there been a willingness to compromise, the world may have been spared conflicts such as the intensification of the Korean war caused by the Allies taking the battle into North Korea, and the takeover of South Vietnam by the North as a consequence of US refusal to accept any other than local proxies as the "legitimate" governments of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Both military stalemate in non-conventional warfare as well as the financial meltdown have led to a mindset within policy circles in the US that may accept this (less than triumphalistic) outcome, the same way as the dislocation of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and early 1970s created within the Chinese Communist Party a willingness to adopt the major economic reforms proposed by Deng Xiaoping, the true "father" of Modern China. Will he go that way? Will the tactics that he uses be sufficient to ensure the creation of a policy architecture that seeks out Win-Win solutions rather than persist with Zero Sum equations? If such a change does take place, those who are writing off the US may be proved wrong, especially if the PRC avoids falling into the trap of military entanglement that the US has landed itself into so often in the past century.
Indeed, the Obama Moment symbolizes the contribution that the US has made to human history, which is to finally bring to a conclusion six centuries of European primacy in world affairs. The US has emerged as a quadricultural country, getting its vital essence from a fusion of European, Asian, African and South American traditions, in the process creating an amalgam that has been accepted by several in all these four continents. Although as yet most within the US policy establishment continue to see their country as being organically linked only to Europe, such a world view is coming under strain from those with a broader societal perspective. Hence the muted response to the Honduran situation, in place of what earlier would have been complete support to those who overthrew Manuel Zelaya. In Africa, Asia and South America, social transformation is taking place the way it did in Europe during the period when that continent emerged from the "Dark Ages". This evolving dynamic is very friendly to the core US values of adaptability and syncretism. To summarize: the US can remain powerful, if it deploys the power of its culture, its social freedom, its ability to assimilate and its innovation.China can rise in influence, if it continues to shun the path of war, and looks instead for peaceful means of assertion. It is the arts and sciences that best protect US/PRC interests in the coming era, where Asia is becoming as major a geopolitical force as Europeevolved into by the 19th century.