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Barack Obama and the World

Although Barack Obama entered the White House with less political experience than any recent United States President, his life journey and personal values uniquely qualify him to offer a new vision of international leadership for America.

William Chafe        Last Updated: November 11, 2010  | 14:38 IST

Although Barack Obama entered the White House with less political experience than any recent United States President, his life journey and personal values uniquely qualify him to offer a new vision of international leadership for America. No other chief executive ever lived his childhood years in an Asian, Muslim country. None before Obama had to confront a mixed racial identity and decide its importance for his personal life. And no other President has combined the experience of being a community organiser in poverty-ridden Chicago with being one of the "best and brightest" students at America's most elite universities. All in all, these attributes provide Obama with personal qualities especially appropriate for providing leadership in a period destined to be shaped by global, economic, cultural and environmental crises.

A cursory look at America's recent presidents suggests just how distinctive Obama's experience is. Although Ronald Reagan professed to be a person of the world, most of his experiences abroad came through playing wartime movie roles. Bill Clinton lived two years at Oxford and travelled through Europe, but he came to Washington with little exposure to other cultures, except for his deep engagement with African Americans. George W. Bush was singular in his total absence of international experience. Only George Herbert Walker Bush was distinguished by experience with the outside world, including presiding over America's first modern-day embassy in Beijing.

Perhaps most important, only Obama had the experience of growing up in multi-racial, multi-cultural environments. Living with his mother in Indonesia, he played with children from a variety of religious and economic backgrounds. Hawaii immersed him further in a multi-ethnic community. It was out of all this that Obama confronted his racial identity. Born of a black Kenyan father and a white Kansas mother, he recognised the need to find comfort in his own skin. In Dreams of My Father, Obama tells us how he came to embrace, then celebrate, being an African American. He did so with singular self-consciousness, careful reflection, and a process of cogent analysis that would distinguish the rest of his career. Nothing was left unconsidered.

With that foundation, Obama climbed the intellectual ladder of America's elite educational institutions, from Columbia University in New York to Harvard Law School in Cambridge. Except that, unlike most members of the "best and brightest", he interrupted his formal education to pursue the most decisive political experience of his life, spending two years as a community organiser in the south side of Chicago.

What does a community organiser do? He listens - to the different people who live in a community, to their concerns, their feelings. If a community organiser learns anything, it is the critical importance of understanding how people of different backgrounds experience reality.

Nothing has been more important in preparing Obama to be a different kind of world leader. Because of his life experience, he does not see the world in simplistic terms. There is no "evil" empire, as under Reagan, nor an "axis of evil" as under George W. Bush. The rhetoric of holy wars is gone. Second, he understands the need to engage world views other than his own. Hence his speech in Cairo inviting dialogue between Muslims, Christians and Jews. Third, Obama understands the need to listen carefully to perspectives long ignored by Washington. While some Western European allies may feel slighted, Obama understands that the future of the 21st century will be shaped by the values and economies of China, India, and other countries historically outside of America's traditional "sphere" of interest. Although some view Obama as hostile to business interests, he has surrounded himself with economic advisers richly experienced in understanding that America lives in a global economy, not one limited to, or controlled by, the United States.

Americans - like everyone else - live in a new age. Now they have a new kind of leader. He listens, like a community organiser listens. He invites open debate, and welcomes those who challenge conventional wisdom. Above all, he sees the global direction history is taking. With his leadership, America can play a major role in that history.

The author is a former Dean of Arts and Sciences, Duke University.

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