There is no doubt the election of Barack Obama as the new president of the United States will have an impact on how many in the rest of the world think about the world’s sole superpower. Obama represents a new generation of leadership, and he both sounds and looks very different from his predecessors.
Here in Russia, as in most places I have visited recently, Obama’s appearance – he is the first black leader of any world power – is getting the most attention. His victory marks the end of the view of America still promoted by many in Russia, a line used by the Soviets to counter accusations of repression. “Ah, but in the US they lynch Negroes!” It is practically conventional wisdom, and not just here, that in America the rich WASPs and Jews exploit the poor blacks and Latinos.With Obama’s victory, it is as if suddenly everyone can see the world is undeniably round.
Unfortunately, most would rather talk about what this might mean for race in America instead of confronting the racism and xenophobia in our own nations. But the only thing that will matter, and surprisingly soon, is whether or not Obama acts differently. The window of opportunity for Obama to take advantage of the world’s curiosity and goodwill will be small. The crises we face are too big; the new American president will not enjoy much of a grace period.
Obama is halfway there simply by virtue of not being George W. Bush, who, rightly in some cases and wrongly in others, has come to symbolise every problem anyone has ever had with America, Americans and American power abroad.
Bush is practically a bouquet of the classic American stereotypes, the ones so easy to hate. Rich, inarticulate, uninterested in the world, stridently religious and hasty to act. (And the images of New Orleans after Katrina seemingly exemplified the stereotype of Americans as racists and were viewed largely without surprise abroad. Of course they wouldn’t rescue poor black people!) Obama has exploded these stereotypes.
But the world’s multitude of grievances with Bush will quickly be laid on Obama’s doorstep if he fails to back up his inspiring rhetoric with decisive action.
He can get off to a good start by making it clear he does not consider the people of Russia to be the enemy of the United States. As in most authoritarian states, the Putin regime does not represent a majority of its citizens. Kremlin propaganda works hard to present America as Russia’s adversary. Obama can strike a blow against that image by speaking out against the dictatorial leaders in Russia and around the world.
Then those words must be quickly followed up with deeds.