as your country settles into the change from the Cheney to the Obama administration, I send you and your family my heartfelt congratulations.
The symbolism goes deeper than is apparent. Most people in your country and elsewhere hail the advent of the "first Black President of the US", and that alone would make the 20th of January 2009 a date to remember, following as it did on "Martin Luther King" Day. But your new Head of the Executive is more than the representative of just one of the communities which make up your nation. He is also, and to my mind more significantly, the embodiment of inter-racial tolerance and engagement. Barack Obama is less Black than Jesse Jackson, and less White than Hillary Clinton. But rather than a shortcoming, this explains why the new President is looked upon with hope and fervour not only by the Black or White communities, but by many Latinos, Asians, indigenous Americans, African Americans, East Europeans, and so many others.
Do you think I'm over-stating President Obama's origins? Let me say why I feel this is significant. Like Canada, your country has become, more than most others, a land of mixed couples, of inter-racial mariage, of families in which religious persuanion leaves a place for agnostic or atheist philosophy, a society in which public office is accessible to all. Admittedly, the US is not unique: Germany has the largest Turkish community outside of Turkey, France has the largest Muslim community in Western Europe. But, like Canada, the US is a few decades, perhaps a few generations ahead ot countries where dividing lines, according to gender, religion, race or social origin, allocate to each a pre-determined role. For those of us who are not US citizens, the symbolic power of your 44th President lies less in his Black father or White mother, than in the fact that he carries the aspirations of more than any single "race".
So much for symbolic value. As "change" was the key word during the presidential campaign, it now deserves closer scrutiny. Is it the image of the Cheney presidency leaving the inaugural ceremony in a wheelchair? Is it the immediate decision to close down the prison in Guantanamo Bay, even if the implementation may take more time? Is it the affirmation that "as for our common defence, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals" (at that moment, CNN caught George W. Bush looking uncomfortable)? Yes, we were all enthralled by the outstanding oratory of the incoming President, but the enduring value of his inaugural address rests not only in the delivery of his speech, but even more in the clarity of his analysis and the determination of his policy outline. Some of these elements seemed to me of particular importance.
First, for your country. Barack Obama recognized the extent to which the current crisis has affected not only the financial and economic sectors, but also the dire consequence of "sapping of confidence" of a nation. Rather than accept some expedient solution, he rejected the call for "the next generation to lower its sights" and proposed, instead, a far more ambitious goal. He said, in no uncertain terms, that economic growth cannot be wrought without a concern for equality. He rightly claimed that education and research, but also human dignity and social fairness, are the foundations of a nation's progress. He made a strong and convincing plea for diversity and harmony in the US: "we are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers..." (I highlight this last expression, because in US history, moral standing was most often depicted as the privilege of those who had one or another religious persuasion).
Second, for the world. Barack Obama gave a sensible appraisal of the role of the US in the world, when he proclaimed that "the greatness of a nation is never given". It so happens that, a couple of weeks after the death of Samuel Huntington, the 44th President addressed the Muslim world by suggesting an open approach, in sharp contrast to the foreign policy of his predecessor, which was based on the separation of nations between Good and Evil. He spoke to the friends of the US, but without holding a score-card in his hand to judge their value according to their involvement in the military occupation of Irak. He addressed the overarching challenges: the eco-system, intolerance, pandemics, nuclear proliferation, terror.
Your 44th President has set the tone and charted his way forward. US citizens come away from the Mall with the sense that hope is stronger than cynicism, that honesty does not preclude prosperity, that prosperity can and must be achieved with honesty, that "the common good" is not only an abstract notion, but the very essence of government, especially in a land whose founding document begins with the proclamation "We, the People". Leaders in many lands will appreciate the sense of openness demonstrated by the new President. People everywhere have great expectations, not only with regard to Barack Hussein Obama as a new world-class leader, but with regard to the United States in general.
Against this backdrop of hope, what are the main challenges for President Obama and other leaders around the globe? Reality has its own tenacious manner, so we may as well look it in the face, if we want to deal with it efficiently.
The US stands to benefit from the mood which was inaugurated in Washington on 20th of January 2009, but the challenges ahead are looming large. Here are some of the facts regarding the US economy: the gross debt is now in excess of 9 trillion US$, including a national (or public) debt of about 5 trillion; the overall debt now represents more than 65 percent of GDP; the US dollar, which ten years ago was the preferred unit of account for about 80% of international trade, now represents 50% of the total; ten years ago, 90% of official foreign currency reserves held by governments around the world were made up of US dollars, and today the proportion is about 60%. These figures are well known, but here is one piece of data which has escaped most mainstream media: since the Spring of 2007, the proportion of US bonds and negotiable financial instruments in US dollars, held by US citizens or entities, dwindled to less than 5% of the total, which is perhaps an indication of the "sapping of confidence" Barack Obama referred to.
In the US, the short-term challenges are clearly identified: the housing market, rising unemployment, failed financial self-regulation, lax federal management, and placing the pursuit of "the war on terrorism" above political accountability. But challenges in the medium and longer term are no less worthy of attention: weaning the US away from high energy consumption, a consumer pattern where waste is a measure of prosperity more than a concern for sustainability, a social paradygm in which economic and financial success are more highly regarded than an equitable society. It's fine to hear President Obama say "We will not apologize for our way of life", provided this does not preclude the necessary adaptations in a world where energy consumption is the other side of the coin of ecology. Because of his stature, because of the talent he has drawn to his cause, Barack Obama has given rise to great expectations among his countrymen. I was struck to hear that in one public opinion poll in your country, the single strongest demand was for the new President to set up an independent inquest into the actions of President Bush and Vice-President Cheney (9/11, Irak, Enron and other items were mentioned), and that public opinion was already criticizing statements by Joe Biden and Barack Obama to the effect that it was more important to work for the future than to examine past deeds. The resentment about the damage done, in the past few years, to the reputation of the US is deeper than I thought.
But the expectations are just as great elsewhere in the world. To what extent will the new US administration get an accurate view of the long-term challenges in the Middle East, before carrying out policies which are sometimes driven by lobbies in the US? How will Obama further engage single-party China without neglecting the existence of Taiwan as a democracy? How does one deal with Russia, other than on a limited agenda of energy politics and the nuclear stockpile? Should some of the major public health challenges of our time be left to the judgment and generosity of individual or corporate benefactors such as Warren Buffett, or Melinda and Bill Gates, or does this still fall within the duties of governements, and therefore of the taxpayer?
the inauguration of your 44th President is a moment to remember. His ambition of "changing America" is no mean challenge: he has the clarity of mind and the energy to do that, with the involvement of you and your fellow citizens. I just wanted to let you know that the accomplishments of the US will have some bearing on the rest of the world.
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