12/22/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Shout Heard Round the World: Obama as Global Leader

On election night, when the TV returns made clear that Barack Obama had been elected the 44th President, a great shout of joy erupted from the hundreds of Occidental students gathered in the union. Faculty living near campus said they could hear the roar from the crowd, ecstatic that their candidate (and an alum of the college) had won. A shout of joy could also be heard around the world.

In almost every country, the reaction to Obama's victory was one of rejoicing and relief that Bush and his unilateralist gang were finally history. Expectations for Obama run absurdly high. As CNN headlined this week, "Obama poised to rebrand America." My students welcome the challenge since they issued a report last spring titled Rebranding America (available online at: and they fully expect Obama to bring real change to America's role in the world.

For eight years, I have taught a course every fall at Oxy on the search for a politically sustainable post-Cold War foreign policy for the US. Neither Bill Clinton nor George Bush managed to craft such a new American Grand Strategy. While Clinton understood the realities of globalization, he had to spend too much time clearing up the debris of the Cold War, especially the disintegration of Yugoslavia -- and he was opposed at almost every step by Republicans.

George Bush was worse. He tried to use the tragic events of 9/11 to construct a new Cold War under the rubric of The War on Terror. As a consequence, America's standing in the world -- until Obama's victory -- has been at an all-time low. Relations with countries like Russia or entire regions like Latin America have drifted or deteriorated. As the "War President," Bush divided the country at home. He leaves President-elect Obama with a myriad of trouble spots -- Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran -- that require Presidential attention on day one in office. However, Bush's neglect of problems like global warming and his failure to make the War on Terror into the unifying principle of US foreign policy, provides both opportunity and challenges for Obama.

As President, Barack Obama has the chance to craft a politically viable post-Cold War foreign policy -- one that can gain widespread support at home and acceptance (and participation) from the international community. If he does, he will set the course of global affairs for the 21st Century, much as FDR and Truman did for the second half of the 20th Century.

The most pressing matter for Obama is to clean up Bush's mess in the Middle East and South Asia, and not get bogged down in Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan to the exclusion of other priorities. He will need a tough, smart team to devise and implement regional solutions that include Iran and Syria, and other countries that Bush confronted but not engaged. He will need to build public support on both sides of the aisle in Congress and from the American public for a "diplomatic surge," as well as for any short term military actions. He will have to accomplish this while leading the nation out of recession. Not an easy task, even for a man who is portrayed by the media as a composite of Lincoln and FDR.

Rather than going from crisis to crisis abroad, Obama can grasp the historical moment to build a globalist policy that is politically sustainable; reality-based; practical and cost-effective; moral -- based on American values of democracy and human rights; and environmentally conscious. Of course, it will also have to be pro-American -- to serve America's immediate and long range interests -- but it can be offered with wise leadership and diplomacy, not bullying or hectoring, and it must include making America a better example of a more decent and greener City on a Hill.

From first hand experience as an American ambassador, I know that we can promote American values without moral absolutism or nationalist cheer leading -- and recruit friends for our side. In Finland, I operated in a nonpartisan manner. I hosted events at the official residence for Henry Kissinger and Rupert Murdoch, as well as for John Kenneth Galbraith and Hillary Clinton. I organized a celebration of the Helsinki Accords and hosted former President Gerald Ford who had signed them. I also arranged a fishing trip and meetings on world poverty for Jimmy Carter.

I actively promoted American products, but tried to do it with a light touch, serving California wines, microbrews from Boston and San Francisco, Ben & Jerry's ice cream and chocolate chip cookies at official functions. I was a champion of American popular culture, cutting the opening ribbon at Planet Hollywood-Helsinki, praising the X-Files on Finnish TV, riding in a classic Impala to open the American Car Show, throwing out the ball at the Finnish American Football championship, and welcoming Tina Turner, Johnny Cash, Jackson Browne, Wilson Pickett and the LA Philharmonic at concerts.

I also worked hard to make the Finns who were officially neutral in the Cold War into closer partners of the US. I went on overnight winter maneuvers with the Finnish army, took military leaders to visit an American aircraft carrier in action off Bosnia, and flew supersonic in an F-18 Hornet purchased by the Finnish air force. I testified on NATO before the foreign relations committee of the Parliament, and arranged for Defense Secretary Bill Perry to take a sauna with the Prime Minister.

When a venue was needed for the a crucial meeting between Clinton and Yeltsin, the President of Finland offered us the Finnish White House, saying "Here are the keys. Use the house and do good work." The summit was a success. Later, President Martti Ahtisaari played a key role in bringing an end to the conflict in Kosovo. This year, Ahtisaari received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Many other Clinton ambassadors took a similar approach, not lecturing but listening, engaging and trying to find areas of common concern, bringing host countries into initiatives where we shared the burden of international leadership. It was the way American diplomacy ought to be practiced -- in an open manner, explaining American values and positions, but seeking common ground.

With Obama's election, every country in the world wants to engage with the US. However, an active, globalist American diplomacy must serve a clear foreign policy agenda. President-elect Obama has already been signaling some elements, as he did in key speeches during the campaign. From what he has said, we can start to see an outline of a new global American foreign policy.

The Green Agenda. In a video address to international environmentalists gathered in Los Angeles this week, President-elect Obama made clear his commitment to taking climate change seriously. He announced that he will have observers at the next UN climate conference in Poland in December, and that as President he will "help lead the world to a new era of global cooperation on climate change."

Making US foreign policy more "green" will, of course, involve more than attendance at international conferences. There will be tough choices to make about the follow-on to Kyoto and the crafting of a new set of green trade policies including a rethinking of the Doha Round of trade protocols. American embassies over time can become centers of environmental consciousness, with diplomats provided hybrid and electric vehicles, and other energy saving devices. American diplomats can seek out and promote joint research projects with universities and businesses on green technology. In rapidly growing countries like China, India, and Brazil, there will be engagement on environmental regulations and on clean-up technology.

The Obama administration can find and promote the "best practice" in environmental regimes around the world, learning from innovators in Scandinavia and Western Europe or in Australia and Asia, and championing that knowledge. President Obama might call for an International Environmental Corp modeled after the Peace Corps to engage young people from around the globe. There will also be opportunities for private sector partnerships. American diplomats can encourage green venture capitalists and social entrepreneurs. A new international environmental agency -- a kind of Green NASA for the planet -- might be designed and founded with American leadership. There can be a global green New Deal, but it will only happen with American leadership.

The Freedom Agenda. The US has always favored expanding democracy around the globe. Obama made explicit in a speech to the Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs that he understands this history, and believes in promoting democracy. However, the US has not always been good about how we export our way of life. In the Cold War, we got in bed with a lot of bad guys in the name of fighting Communism -- but that rationale no longer applies.

How Can the US Best Promote the Spread of Democracy?

In the Clinton administration, national security advisor Tony Lake offered the concept of Democratic Enlargement -- and the US strongly supported adding new members to the EU and NATO, based on the idea that bringing nations into these democratic alliances would expand the "zone of stability" in Europe and help the countries of Eastern Europe and the Baltics to become stable democracies and prospering market economies. This strategy worked well in post-Cold War Europe, but it was much harder to devise a similar strategy for democratic enlargement in the Middle East or Africa.

After 9/11, Bush announced his Freedom Agenda which linked the invasion of Iraq to the building of a democratic nation in the Middle East that would have a demonstrative effect and somehow promote the spread of democracy in other Arab nations. False analogies with the reconstruction of defeated Germany and Japan were offered and there was a lot of political rhetoric without follow-up on the ground nor much support from the international community. As Jim Traub writes in his new book The Freedom Agenda, the US "must spread democracy, just not the way George Bush did it."

How does America promote democracy in failed states like Afghanistan or the Sudan? And what about Egypt or Saudia Arabia, or North Korea when it finally collapses or Cuba after Castro dies? Will democracy be exported, spread or expanded to these nations? All of these matters will arise on Obama's watch. How might he tackle these issues? Here are a few clues and a few operative principles:

(1) Lead by Example. Domestic reform will be the Obama administration's number one priority, but it is also an important aspect of foreign policy. We are not currently number one in the world in voter turnout, provision of health care, K-12 education, environmental protection or early child care programs -- and certainly not in mass transit. Obama can use activist public diplomacy to highlight his domestic reforms to show that we are practicing at home what we preach abroad.

(2) Work With Others. The Obama administration will engage with nations in the Middle East and Africa, and help, when asked, to assist in building and strengthening democratic institutions -- and President Obama will speak out when faux elections make a sham of democratic ideas -- but he won't preach. He will seek through diplomatic engagement to make progress on the ground.

(3) Fight Terrorism Smarter. Terrorism is a tactic of the weak, aimed at disruption and symbolic statements, but it is not war. The Obama administration will, of course, protect Americans at home by strengthening Homeland Security, and improving coordination and cooperation between intelligence and police agencies -- but the President can do that without sacrificing civil liberties. Obama understands that we can work quietly and effectively with our allies and their security services and police to undercut and round up terrorist cells without branding the effort as a religious war or as a battle for western civilization. We don't have to use undemocratic methods to protect democratic societies.

(4) Create New International Agencies. President Obama has spoken movingly about Darfur, and he understands what his advisor Samantha Power calls "the problem from hell" -- how to intervene inside a country to stop genocide. President Clinton says that he wishes he had acted to stop the killing in Rwanda. President Bush continues to send special envoys to Darfur, but can't take action. It is not an easy matter. The US can't be the world's policeman, but it can help to create an international police force that is strong, effective and ready to be deployed for humanitarian interventions. Such a force might be created inside the UN structure or separately outside it, and it can be tied to existing regional security forces such as NATO or the African Union -- but the US cannot be the sole provider. It will only work as an international effort, but one that is America led.

After the fighting stops or after a nation collapses, there needs to be a vehicle to deliver more than just relief. We have plenty of public and private international relief organizations. President Obama will have the opportunity to devise and lead in the creation of a new international nation-building agency. It would house experts in all areas of reconstruction, and international teams of experts would be ready for dispatch. The knowledge to do nation-building exists. (Former US diplomat Jim Dobbins has compiled case studies and hand books at RAND.) What is missing is a delivery system. The State Department and the Pentagon also have expertise, but as with humanitarian intervention, the US cannot and should do not take up this burden alone.

The Globalization Agenda

Barack Obama will take office in the midst of a deep recession. Along with moving on a domestic stimulus package, he will have to take leadership of the international economic agenda. He and his economic team will need action plans for reducing the volatility of international financial markets and increasing the transparency. This might involve a new international regulatory regime along with an international transactions tax to finance it. Obama will also have to coordinate stimulus packages internationally, reaching beyond the traditional G-8 nations to the larger G-20 grouping that includes such emerging economic powers as Brazil and India.

The inherent contradiction of globalization is that the world economy transcends nation states, but politics is nation-based. The task of international regulation and coordination is thus not easy; leading is more difficult than simply putting an army into the field or calling a diplomatic conference. Beyond the problem of the current recession, rests the deeper question of how to make the global economy more stable and more equitable.

President Obama understands that as with promoting democracy, promoting globalization requires domestic reform at home. Americans who voted for him will not support new trade agreements nor new international economic initiatives unless they feel protected against the ups and downs of the market -- so building a better and stronger social safety net in the US is a necessary part of the strategy.

One of the lessons of globalization is that national governments matter more than ever. A sustainable global economy requires honest and competent governments to uphold rights and standards for labor, to protect the local environment, to insure safe products, and to invest in education, health care and infrastructure. This is one of the messages that Obama can explain to the world community -- both in word and in deed.

Obama can be the teacher and the leader who transcends 20th Century ideological debates about government versus market, by explaining that both are essential to society. He can be the American President who demonstrates that globalization is not just Americanization.

At a lecture I gave last week at Pomona College, an international student asked me if expectations for Barack Obama's Presidency were too high -- if he might not fail and disappoint the millions around the world who joined in the collective shout of joy. Of course there will be missteps along the way as Obama himself has cautioned -- but Obama, I firmly believe, understands that this is not simply about himself, and that the load need not rest solely on his shoulders. That's why he is assembling a strong and talented team to govern with him. That's why he is reaching out to former opponents like John McCain and Joe Lieberman, and most likely to some Republicans like Defense Secretary Bob Gates. That's why he is discussing the Secretary of State's job with Hillary Clinton. And that's why his staff is already calling on those who volunteered in his campaign to send in ideas for action and to join him in his reform efforts. He is trying to adopt a transformative style of leadership that encourages participation, and burden-sharing -- of both the credit and the blame. It's the smart and politically savy way to govern.

I don't know if I convinced the student. After all, he could not vote for Obama himself. Obama was not elected by the world's citizens. He is the American President after all -- but he is, in many respects, also the world's President. What he does will matter to young and old across the globe. The world, like America, is waiting for him to lead. It is a daunting and exhilarating thing to behold as the American Century gives way to the first truly Global Century and Oxy's Barack Obama as the Global President.