The Obama Moment

The Paris-based European Union Institute for Security Studies issued a volume titled The Obama Moment: European and American Perspectives, containing varied views of several scholars and experts from both shores of the Atlantic.

The Obama moment refers to the particularity of this era as essentially different from the Bush foreign policy. As Alvaro de Vasconcelos (director of the EUISS) explains in his introduction, it is “a radical departure from the confrontational style of conducting foreign policy that characterised the Bush era,” and a moment echoing Bill Clinton’s “assertive multilateralism,” providing Europe with more hope to participate positively in shaping a “better world.” Against the sceptics and the ultra-conservatives who champion a one-sided reality of power (necessarily predominance of force over diplomacy), there is here a reference to what the French philosopher Edgar Morin called “world patriotism.” Globalisation has not only linked together, through economic interdependence, people who had for thousands of years always lived in separated spheres, but at the same time –” I think in complete opposition to Huntington’s thesis –” it made global cultural interaction possible for the first time since Man appeared on earth.

Nonetheless, in Alvaro’s opinion, our world is “dominated by two trends: one of increasing interdependence and a rising world polity that erodes state borders, and one of increasingly assertive aspiring world powers, whose rise is challenging the sense of sovereignty innate to the traditional big powers that shape multipolarity.” While the first is inviting a world-system based on multilateral governance, the second may just make this purpose nonsensical. From this, he induces that the great goal of the European Union is to resolve this contradiction by “creating international rules and norms that reflect the will of international civil society and at the same time create the conditions for a stable and peaceful relationship among the big powers.” For this, he thinks that Europeans, who disagreed with Bush’s foreign policy, feel more close to Obama, as they believe “he shared the same principles and values that lie at the heart of European integration…”

Apparently, Alvaro was alluding to China and India. But I do not think the game is just about economic cooperation. In my eyes, “the sense of sovereignty innate to the traditional big powers” has not always shaped multipolarity. Actually, the history of our modern world is to a great extent the history of how those “traditional big powers” tried to make the whole world to their image through imperial hegemony. Wherever they ruled, outside their borders, the populations and their elites had to abide by their own standards. When did they act for multipolarity? Certainly neither before World War One nor even after World War Two. Their failure at the multipolarity exercise after the first war brought up the hell of the second. And prior to these wars, more than half the world population was suffering under the rude colonial rule. Therefore, the rise of new world powers is not necessarily inimical to multipolarity. I just don’t see how this can be inferred. Is there really a contradiction? Yes, indeed there is one, but not as it was presented by de Vasconcelos. The contradiction as I see it is between hegemonic powers wishing to stay “alone” in the great game of the nations, and emerging powers. And between them there is more struggling for survival over markets and strategic positions than friendly cooperation.

Mr de Vasconcelos ostensibly did not want to unveil the strategic game, but he could hardly ignore it, for he advocated “multipolarity” through the creation of the best conditions of peaceful entente between “big powers.” That could be the beginning of a great project of course, if instead of setting up the international rules for a good relationship between “big powers,” we enlarge the concept to include all the countries willing to participate to a “New Contract” between the nations.

Let’s be clear. I entirely agree with de Vasconcelos when he puts the stress on soft power and good leadership. We need both. But we need them for setting up an order where no nation feels oppressed even when (or despite) it fully participates to the global governance structures. For what is “a multilateral dimension to multipolarity” if it excludes half the humanity (India and China) plus 1.3 billion Muslims? Just a few days ago, we saw Obama in India and Indonesia, giving the US diplomacy the impulse it lacked. He pleaded again and again for a new dialogue between the West and the East in a manner that would seem unimaginable to Kipling. In undertaking such a long trip to Asia, Obama’s message is clear: our world is multiple and all its varieties are enriching to humankind. The old policies of “hegemonic entente” between “big powers” would not pass any more. These emerging economies represent indeed old nations, yet, they are the fact of young generations, and young generations are educated and aware. Imperialist dealing with these nations was possible when education was nil or quasi nil among them. Today, thanks precisely to cultural globalisation, a decision taken in Washington, Paris, or London, can have immediate consequences in Africa, Asia or Latin America. I do not think necessarily of governmental decisions; it may be just a decision taken by a pastor in a Florida church, an editor in Stockholm, or (the opposite is true too) a bearded cleric in Tehran or Lahore.

I think Obama and many Liberals and centre and left-wing people (even centre-conservatives) in the USA and Europe are quite sensible to the opinion that in order to get cooperation and respect you should be cooperative and respectful yourself. The old imperialist big powers’ view was: you get respect and cooperation by using force. Modern history showed that in using force you may make yourself scared but not respected. As to cooperation, I remind you of Vichy government, when France was occupied. The people of Maréchal Pétain were not cooperating with the Nazis. They were just “collaborators” as the French say, meaning: traitors.

So, if we judge the policy of confrontation and unilateralism unfit to our time, let’s go forward and listen to the other’s voice.