The race is down to the finishing line, and in a couple of days we will know who the next US President will be. The whole world has been watching the drama unfold on our TV screens, worthy of a Hollywood production with elements of science fiction, thanks to super-storm Sandy.
Taking into account that many of us do no have the right to vote in the US elections, it is quite an overkill the way the Presidential race is covered by non-US media. At the same time, it is not easy to remain indifferent to the dramatic debates, the massive scale of meetings and electoral expenses, the dogged determination of the candidates crisscrossing this vast country. It is these fascinating “democracy rituals” that the American Republic has developed, and the realization, even if unpleasant to some, that the US still matters the most among the countries of the world, that attract the global interest in this election that involves less than 5 per cent of the world’s population.
What is it that the US still has that gives it such predominance? With a crumbling infrastructure – see New York City after Sandy – a huge debt, declining industry, increasing inequality and unemployment, this seems to be a country in decline, an empire whose best days are past. Nevertheless, the country remains the main global trend-setter, innovator, political and military leader, as well as moral norm proponent (even if in practice it does not always respect such norms itself – see Guantanamo and CIA “renditions”). It maintains its “killer instinct”, ready to use, effectively and in an escalating way, all means, from political to economic and military, to achieve its objectives. The American dream has an irresistible allure for the majority of people, who watch Hollywood movies and American TV shows, use the latest gadgets and social networks launched by US firms, and expect the US to do something about all of the world’s problems, even if they criticize it anyway.
The new US President will have to deal with all this, build on the strengths and address the weaknesses. And it is on how they deal with the weaknesses that the differences between the two candidates seems to be most clear. President Obama seems inclined to focus on “nation-building” at home, tackling the shortcomings that have emerged within the American society, rebuilding the crumbling infrastructure and mending the inequality gap that has increased significantly between the haves and the have-nots inside the US, while maintaining a respectful and rather restrained presence abroad. Governor Romney seems more inclined to export the US problems, with a more assertive presence abroad, notably military presence, which is hoped will restore America’s clear predominance and will correct domestic problems by being tough on trade, monetary issues, resource access, etc.
Whoever wins, will try their best to elevate their country and their leadership in the way they think best. Come January 2013, the world will work with either President Romney or President Obama, no matter what preference people might have had before the elections. The world needs a strong US, because leadership is hard to find, and the challenges are numerous, many of them of a global nature, like climate change, food insecurity, financial instability, resource scarcity. For the same reasons, the world needs a strong Europe, and a strong China, and India, and Brazil, and a strong Africa, and Southeast Asia and Latin America. These countries and regions also need to show leadership, and take on the glory and cost that leadership entails.
It is not about balancing or unseating the US from the global throne. The more leadership the better, as long as it is not of the confrontational type. We need leadership of the problem-solving type, addressing real issues and not just playing geopolitical games. In that sense, the world would probably vote for Obama, if it were allowed to vote in the US elections. Despite his known shortcomings, including an apparent intellectual aloofness and problems with consensus building in his own capital, he has been projecting a more benign and constructive America, which seems to be learning from its mistakes in Iraq and elsewhere and tries to avoid making new ones. This kind of America, one that also starts dealing seriously with its own problems at home, would be more of an asset to the world and leader for a new era of more balanced burden-sharing and problem-solving.
Ixelles, 4 November 2012
PS: Barack Obama has just been reelected, with a convincing majority. Expectations are running high, and he seems determined to meet them. He is in a good place, with nothing to lose in his second and final term — nothing other than his good name and legacy, that is, if he does not deliver. His reaching out to his defeated opponent for ideas to get the US back on track is a good sign of bipartisanship, which is necessary if things are to be done. His talk of America being a peaceful and generous power for the world, reference to climate change and other elements of his speech bode well for the future. Amen!
GK, 7 November 2012