Random thoughts while waiting for the next US president

November 3, 2008

“He can’t lose. Can he?” Asks Gideon Rachman about Barak Obama. So, let’s assume….

Obama’s potential team? Speculation over at The Custom House. Greg Mankiw says that the economics team will be “fascinating to watch”.

The most interesting question, for most concerned non US citizens, though, will be the question of Obama’s foreign policies. More multilateralist in a context where the UN is once more paralysed by US-Russian divisions? More “engaging” or too “soft” on the New Authoritarians? Who knows? America in both its self-definition and in the views of the rest of the world embodies one main value: freedom. But after Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and secret CIA abductions in Europe and elsewhere, it’s hard not to be a bit cynical. These policies and events fuel the contempt of the Amadinejads and Putins of this world. Furthermore, there is a sense of regression in the what seemed inevitable Great Leaps Forward of democracy in the world. In fact, real, good US leadership is more needed then ever. 

The next president will need to deal with a strange legacy left by both Bill Clinton and George W Bush, if I understand well an article entitled “Ending Tyranny” published in the September/October edition of The American Interest (requires subscription) by Cold War scholar John Lewis Gaddis:

In 1992, Francis Fukuyama “pointed out that democracy, over the pas two centuries, had advanced steadily across regions, cultures and ethnicities, so that the Cold War was really the culmination of a much longer process. It was in that sense, he maintained, that history itself – previously understood in terms of clashing political systems – was coming to an end: Democracy had prevailed. A second and equally influential argument came from the “democratic peace” theorists, who showed that democracies tend not to fight one another. It followed that, then, that the proliferation of democracoes should make the world a more peaceful place.

These arguments appealed to the liberal side of the political spectrum, but they meshed surprisingly well with a third put forward by the advocates of neoconservatism. Once liberals themselves, the neoconservaties had abandoned the cause on the grounds that detentem which other liberals supported, was perpetuating the cold war”

In the 1990s:

The liberals, influential within the Clinton Administration, were content simply to let democracy trimuph: If it was an inevitable outcome, why should the United States exert itself to bring it about? The neoconservatives objected to this passivitym calling for more agressive action to speed up the process.”

After Iraq, George W Bush held a speech on Capitol Hill in in January 2005 stating: “it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culturem with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in the world“. (highlighted by me)

Lewis argues that ending tyranny is an old US goal set out by the likes of Thomas Jefferson, positive democracy promotion a 20th Centurty appearance in US foreign policy. And history played a nasty trick:

“The end of the Cold War left the United States in a position of dominance unrivaled since the days of the Roman Empire (…) So all at once their efforts to encourage democracy (…) now looked like an effort to concentrate power in their own hands”.

Lewis argues that Bush, by setting the goal of of “ending tyranny”, might have launched a reorientation of US foreign policy doctrine (unbelievable ….). He learned the lessons of wanting to impose democracy on countries which do not have what he calls “the prerequisites” (freedom from fear, freedom from anarchy, personal security, reasonably functioning courts and a minimum of economic development). A more modest goal of toppling tyranny – i.e. first and foremost achieving freedom from fear, the principle on which tyranny thrives – where it hurts most, and then let the countries chose the government that suits best to the stage in which their societies are, might be delineating itself. This is also what he as historian and Bush adminstratuion analyst, recommends. The doctrine seems to be translating into reality. Interesting news today: NATO no longer wants Afghanistan to hold general elections

All this is very debatable, problematic, controversial. But this gives food for thought… Yet in fact the first war the next President will have to wage will be that on Recession. See here what a former IMF chief economist recommends on that matter.

Happy election day, United States. The world is watching you.

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