Obama and the Realities of the Manichean World

2016-10-05 18:45

As Barack Obama's presidential two terms near the end and the contenders for his succession up their game, Obama's legacy becomes a focus of scrutiny. Hilary Clinton clashed with Obama because Clinton preferred a more interventionist foreign policy than Obama wanted, yet she now claims to run on the Obama legacy ticket. Obama presented himself as a president who would harness smart power rather than crude power of force to maintain and advance US' global ambitions, but Clinton is know for a more aggressive and militaristic tone.

How can Clinton project herself as a custodian of a president she could not serve beyond one term? If we accept that she is and many would prefer her to the maverick, Donald Trump, what then does it mean about a Clinton presidency for us here in Africa?

To deliberate this, we must consider the question - what Obama became in reality as a president.

The rise of of Obama as a black president of the United States, the world’s single super-power dominating the world system on behalf of the West, raised hopes for some change as the world confronts blackness at its very core. What do we say about this now that Obama nears the end of his two terms in the presidency of the U.S. and that which goes with this? What have we learned?

As Obama stood on the platform of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2016, the closest we have to a world government being a platform where leaders of 193 countries gather annually to discuss the state of the world, he spoke with a tone that seemed to suggest that he was keenly aware of the realities that constrained the power of his symbolism and the extent of his agency. This year, he seemed a lot humbler and circumspect than in his maiden speech in September 2009 and subsequently, especially 2011 and 2012.

Clearly, Obama has become just another president of a contested global power, the US, just an ordinary American president. Yet, he is not like Bush and Bill Clinton before him because of the power of his symbolism as a black president and because of oratory. But there is much less hype about his blackness at the helm of a white power in the whitehouse. There is much less power of iconography, the symbolism that had made him an unusual and a potentially extra-ordinary global significance, one that had caused large crowds to throng streets in several countries he visited in his early days. His election in 2008 had actually energized many around the world, including in Africa and other parts of the black world.

Black USA had come in large numbers to grace his electoral campaigns and greet his election as a black president. It raised hopes among black U.S. citizens that dream best publicized by Martin Luther King jnr during ru civil rights campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s which continue to this day in the form represented by the #BlackLivesMatter. Of course, in his two books, The Dream from My Father and Audacity of Hope, Obama himself helped build such hope by coming across as someone who understood the problems facing black people and others on the margins of society and that if given an opportunity he would do something significant about it.

In 2009, Obama said: “I come before you humbled by the responsibility that the American people have placed upon me, mindful of the enormous challenges of our moment in history, and determined to act boldly and collectively on behalf of justice and prosperity at home and abroad.” This was a bold undertaking, a making of a big contract with peoples of the world who have understood that the changes the world needed would not happen until there is willing partner for the dream of a new world movement in the White House.

“I am well aware of the expectations that accompany my presidency around the world,” he said. He also understood that these expectations were born out of the longstanding wish to change the world system in deep ways. The expectations are rooted “in a discontent with a status quo that has allowed us to be increasingly defined by differences, and outpaced by our problems.” “But they are also rooted in hope”, he said, “the hope that America will be a leader in bringing about such change.

He went on to outline how the US under his leadership would be a collective leader, build the unity of purpose in the world for changes needed; that it would work through and with the UN rather than as a unilateral lone ranger. The US would work for peace and shared prosperity. It would not dominate others because “No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed.”

But it turned out that his speeches will inspire more than his actions though he had himself said in 2009 that it will be hard choices, big decisions and firm a tions taken that will deliver on the promise of change. Obama was still the president of the US whose agenda did not change because the new president had an audacity to hope beyond it’s imperial designs. The U.S. congress would not understand even his least progressive moves, forcing him further back to orthodoxy with touches of bold hope, such as on US policy on Cuba.

The need to balance the interests central to the centre of power in the U.S. on many matters especially economy and national security meant that his government would in practice be more establishment the daring Obama who entered the White House with "Yes I can" attitude. He became a lot more cautious than the courageous Obama of campaigns and speeches.

Obama remarkably withdrew soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan, yet he pursued the U.S. war on terror by other means. He used drones to fight "enemies" abroad, killing them without putting US soldiers on foreign ground. On China and Russia, Obama pursued a hawkish foreign policy by playing power games with both. He pursued the policy of containment and encirclement by befriending and recruiting to the Western bloc Russia's neighbors while also extending NATO presence closer and closer to Russia's borders. His government actively pursued a military build up in South China Sea to checkmate China's regional hegemony.

Obama did not move the U.S. foreign policy on the injustice of US and European dominance of decusion-making structure at the IMF and World Bank. He aggressively pursued trade protectionism in internationL trade negotiations and limited responsibility in international negotiations on climate change. It was under Obama that the U.S. bullied UNESCO and participated in seeking to undermine UNCTAD, two UN agencies that have sought to pursue a development agenda thT the global south favor.

Obama distinguished himself by pursuing negotiations rather than Clinton's preferred military solution on Iran's nuclear question. He resisted the pressure to send the military to Syria and even tool a secondary role in the France-UK led military offensive on Libya. Obama's greatest foreign policy showpiece will be his daring efforts to normalize US relations with Cuba through negotiations and confidence building measures.

It is on these latter matters of pro-diplomatic posture that Clinton's claim to advance the Obama legacy must be tested. So far, she has shown no genuine commitment to negotiated solutions or in breaking the mould of US big power foreign policy tendencies.

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