THE BLOG
12/20/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How Obama Can Win the World's Trust

Though the euphoria surrounding Barack Obama's election last week as President-elect has not yet begun to subside, it is already time to recognise that the most important challenge facing the next US president is to restore America's standing in the eyes of the world. A new president must reinvent the US as a country that listens, that engages with others, and that has, in the famous phrase from the American Declaration of Independence in 1776, ''a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.''

That is, of course, easier said than done, even if the mere fact of Obama's election has already provided a huge public relations boost to the United States. Reading the Arab press in the week after his election has been particularly impressive: so many columnists across the Middle East have openly scorned America's Arab critics, pointing to Obama's election as proof of the critics' ignorance and of America's astonishing capacity to re-invent itself. But there are a few useful rules the new administration would be well advised to follow.

The first is to stop acting and sounding as if Washington's is the only way of seeing the world. Bush's famous ''you're either with us or against us'' approach typified an attitude that makes all disagreement with the US administration illegitimate or ''anti-American.''

Americans must learn not to define ''anti-Americanism'' so broadly that they convert every critic into an enemy. (One of my favourite anecdotes, though sadly almost certainly apocryphal, concerns Nehru and John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower's secretary of state in the 1950s and a famous critic of non-alignment -- ''Neutrality between good and evil,'' he memorably intoned about those who failed to take sides against godless Communism, ''is itself evil.'' Dulles allegedly asked Nehru, ''Are you with us or against us?'' to which Nehru replied, ''Yes!'' In other words, we would be ''with'' the US or against it, as we judged appropriate on the merits of each issue.)

An Obama administration, led by a man who has lived abroad and traveled extensively, must recognise that foreigners approach global problems with a different set of assumptions and experiences -- and that they might have different priorities that Washington must learn to respect. This would be a healthy contrast to the Bush years: after all, when they were elected in 2000, Dick Cheney had had more heart attacks (four) than George W Bush had had foreign trips.

Of course, foreigners have a complex set of associations in their minds when they think of America -- from Iraq to 9/11, certainly, but also from Coke to jeans. It is entirely possible for people around the world to love American products, American books, American movies, American music, and dislike the policies of the government of America. That's why ''anti-Americanism'' is a meaningless term: many people who love a great deal about America and dislike some of the policies of its government are often wrongly dismissed by politicians in the US as anti-American.

In fact, many of the people who are most considered anti-American would love to partake of the American dream: the unspoken slogan of many protesters outside US embassies abroad is really: ''Yankee go home, but take me with you.''

Accepting this, Washington, in keeping with the Obama approach, should overtly and visibly demonstrate its openness to the needs and priorities of the rest of the world. The new administration must show that, despite its understandable internal preoccupations, America -- still the world's richest country by far -- will never forget its responsibilities to the well-being of the planet. Foreigners can't help feeling dismayed when they read that 65% of the elected members of a recent US Congress had never held a passport.

They are terrified of Americans who think all the answers to all the world's problems can be found in America. As part of this openness, the US should work to promote international solutions and multilateral institutions to implement them, working with the UN and an expanded G-8. It is essential that Washington never again shows the Bush administration's disdain for the opinions of the rest of the world.

At the same time, America has no need to act as if it has nothing to teach the rest of the world. The best way to do so is to revive America's finest traditions. Washington must stop the Bush administration practices that have repudiated the values for which America has long stood. A good shortlist to start with would be to close down Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, abjure torture and rendition, prosecute Blackwater's killings of civilians, and vow that America will never conquer its enemies by behaving like them.

It's important to accept that these mistakes were made, and that ''the Ugly American'' was not merely the title of a novel. After the errors and missteps of the ''war on terror,'' America, in keeping with its optimistic President-elect, must again be a land inspired by hope, not impelled by fear.

The new president must show in word and deed that he recognises the world has changed. An America that adjusts graciously from being the world's CEO to its chairman of the board, gently nudging a set of independent directors whose autonomy it respects, is an America that once again could be a shining beacon on the hill for the rest of us.

Almost a year ago, the commentator Andrew Sullivan wrote in The Atlantic:

''At a time when America's estrangement from the world risks tipping into dangerous imbalance, when a country at war with lethal enemies is also increasingly at war with itself, when humankind's spiritual yearnings veer between an excess of certainty and an inability to believe anything at all, and when sectarian and racial divides seem as intractable as ever, a man who is a bridge between these worlds may seem indispensable.

''We may in fact have finally found that bridge to the 21st century that Bill Clinton told us about. Its name is Obama.''

(Originally published in The Times of India, November 16, 2008)

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