Measuring the Obama Effect Around the World

Measuring the Obama Effect Around the World

By Ian Bremmer - November 27, 2008

Pre-election surveys of countries around the world revealed a widespread hope that Americans would elect Barack Obama. In January, the new president will enter the White House with historically high international expectations.

That's Obama's first foreign-policy challenge. Expectations impose burdens, and his administration won't have the time or the means to shoulder these burdens alone. He and his team know they must generate the confidence and capital necessary to restore the floundering U.S. economy and keep campaign promises to meet other domestic needs. Many Americans now fear they will lose their jobs, their homes and their health insurance. They expect that until urgent domestic priorities are addressed, the problems of other countries will have to wait.

But there's an opportunity here, as well. The goodwill that Obama has already generated abroad can help him forge foreign partnerships -- tactical alliances that will help with management of a host of pressing international problems. Skeptical Israelis and indifferent Russians aside, the citizens of many countries will support their governments' willingness to share a few burdens with the new U.S. president.

Imagine President Obama's first visits overseas. We caught a glimpse of the welcome he can expect in many countries in the throng of exuberant, flag-waving Berliners he addressed in July and the jubilant Kenyans who danced and sang in celebration on election night.

Even as the new president's focus remains on complex challenges at home, public partnerships with foreign allies can lend them some of Obama's political capital -- as they provide the experience, expertise and leadership needed to implement on-the-ground solutions to a broad range of chronic international problems.

Here are a few of the opportunities these partnerships can create:

Obama's first trip to Africa will trigger an extraordinary spectacle. In Kenya, homeland of his late father, plans are reportedly under consideration to upgrade an airport in the west of the country to accommodate the hoped-for arrival of Air Force One. Obama can expect a similarly warm welcome across much of the continent.

But it is Britain and France, not America, with deepest experience in managing Africa's instability. In early November, the election-obsessed American media barely noticed that British Foreign Secretary David Milliband and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner visited the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country where violence has generated a humanitarian catastrophe. Imbue British and French leaders with some of Obama's appeal and their efforts at regional diplomatic breakthroughs stand a better chance of success. Obama should invite Gordon Brown to join him on his first visit to the continent.

African problems ultimately require African remedies. But as regional leaders South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya wrestle with immediate domestic political challenges, outsiders can help the region cope with several of its crises. Obama can supply the popularity; Brown and others can take the lead on implementing confidence building, crisis management and development solutions in countries like DR Congo, Zimbabwe and Sudan.

Partnerships will help on other issues, as well. Officials in Japan are understandably worried that a U.S. focus on the Middle East, China and Russia might foster neglect in the new administration's relations with America's closest Asian ally. That's why Obama's first stop in East Asia should include a visit to Hiroshima. No sitting president has ever visited the city. It's time one did.

Beyond the powerful symbolism, the visit could inaugurate a joint U.S.-Japanese push to revitalize an increasingly anachronistic global nonproliferation regime. Japan has unique legitimacy to lead on this issue. The transparency of its government and the technical expertise at its disposal would prove invaluable. U.S.-Japanese coordination would reinvigorate their vitally important alliance, and Tokyo's renewed commitment to pacifism would help assuage China's fears that Japan might one day develop nuclear weapons of its own.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has demonstrated a willingness to help manage the West's relations with Russia, and his encounter with Obama in Paris in July suggests the two can build a strong working bond. An Obama-Sarkozy alliance designed to ease Kremlin concerns over U.S. and E.U. ties with the governments of Ukraine and Georgia and to secure whatever Russian cooperation is possible in efforts to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions might bear fruit. Even if it doesn't, Obama will have taken a concrete step to restore trust in transatlantic ties.

Finally, Obama's first trip to the Middle East should begin in Saudi Arabia. Ever important U.S.-Saudi relations have always depended on warm personal ties between the president and a half-dozen Saudi royals. Here, Obama must begin almost from scratch. It's worth the effort, because the promised U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq will create anxiety throughout the Sunni Arab world, but nowhere more urgently than in the Saudi capital. Ultimately, it's the Saudis who have the influence, connections and cash to play a stabilizing role in Iraq and across the region.

Nearly two years ago, Barack Obama announced his presidential candidacy in Springfield, Illinois, "where Lincoln once called on a divided house to stand together." Among Abraham Lincoln's greatest strengths was his willingness to rely on the talents and wisdom of many with whom he sometimes disagreed to find answers to his country's most complicated questions. Obama can follow his example -- and apply it on the international stage.

As the new president begins work on a daunting domestic agenda, he should lean on as many willing foreign allies as possible, lending them a share of the goodwill he's earned overseas to help them address the kinds of complex problems that no one country can handle alone.

Ian Bremmer is the president and founder of Eurasia Group, a global political risk research and consulting firm. You can follow him on Twitter at @ianbremmer.

Copyright 2008, Tribune Media Services Inc.

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