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Barack Obama's first task: setting realistic expectations
Forecasters were mostly wrong about 2008. On the central political event, Barack Obama's election, a few had it right. But virtually no one predicted the global financial crisis and economic meltdown on the scale we have now seen.
Barack Obama's first task: setting realistic expectations. (Associated Press) Given the straits we're in, the 2009 forecast calls for hard heads rather than soft-hearted predictions of what we would like to see unfold.
With that in mind, expectations of Obama seem impossibly high. According to Gallup, there is a huge gap between the grim view Americans have of the state of their nation and the bright confidence they have towards the incoming president.
Closing that gap, by lifting America's confidence in itself and its economy, will be his overriding challenge.
At the same time, Obama also has to manage world expectations. With luck, the new president can use his global surge in popularity to restore confidence in America abroad so that he can exercise his powers of persuasion to bring adversaries everywhere closer to the table.
While surprise may once again be the norm, we can at least hope that the "events" that former British prime minister Harold MacMillan famously warned the young John Kennedy could spoil a presidency will not pile up.
That said, rivalries in Africa and the Middle East can ignite at any time. And the U.S. National Intelligence Council's report "World at Risk" predicts a significant terrorist event involving mass destruction somewhere in the world before 2013, which could be read to mean a 20-per cent risk for 2009,
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Leaders from the larger, G20 group of wealthy nations gather for a first-ever meeting in Washington in November to discuss the economic situation
Goodbye Dick Cheney
On the whole, however, 2009 should see much less American hubris in international affairs.
No less a geopolitical chess player than Henry Kissinger believes 2009 "will mark the beginning of a new world order."
He draws attention to the contradiction between the way global economic forces today work without regard to borders and the old-fashioned way international governance remains locked into the prerogatives of single states.
A new framework for international decision-making is long overdue. Currently, the prospects for international cooperation are dimmed when bodies such as the UN Security Council, to which Canada is now seeking membership, can be routinely hamstrung by China and Russia acting as wary spoilers.
When you look around, you see that most of the big international projects are in abeyance. Competing national agendas have stalled international trade negotiations (the so-called Doha round), talks surrounding climate change and energy cooperation, and nuclear proliferation.
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While outside the G20, the demands for change continue to grow
Can Obama bend to lead?
Obama has repeatedly stated that wants to see more international cooperation on security and other fronts. But he is going to have to lead by example.
Closing the Guantanamo Bay detention centre is a no-brainer. But with his mind concentrated on economic recovery, can he also mobilize America's political will to initiate trade concessions and build down its nuclear and strategic defence systems?
The U.S. may have lost considerable influence at the moment because of Iraq. But America remains the one nation essential to most of the positive outcomes in the world.
The question, though, is whether Obama's Washington can bring more of the world under one tent via genuine consultation. As Kissinger wrote in The Economist, "America will have to learn that world order depends on a structure that participants support because they helped bring it about."
Does this mean letting China and Russia off the hook for their democratic deficits?
No, but it means that Obama (and democracies like Canada) have to do two things at once: offer to help these powers respect their international commitments on democratic transparency and human rights while validating their roles and inputs as strategic partners.
ELECTION WATCH 2009
Spring: Britain (possible)
April: South Africa
May: Afghanistan and (latest) India
June: European Parliament
If we close the rhetoric gap between our public proclamations and our straight talk to them in private, we are more apt to encourage them to distance themselves from the genuinely horrid despots in Zimbabwe or Myanmar.
One of the biggest reality gaps in the Western world today has been the focus on individual problem countries — Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Iran — when most conflicts are inherently regional.
If the world is to change for the better in 2009, leaders, Obama especially, need to rethink these problems from a regional point of view, which for the U.S. should entail talking with presumed adversaries, starting with Iran.
A prime example of the need for fresh thinking in 2009 is the war in Afghanistan, where the gap between rhetoric and reality is gaping, especially in NATO, where most members leave the heavy lifting and losses to a few.
A growing number of Canadians will ask in 2009: why is it deemed so central to our security that we must use just about all our military and foreign affairs leverage to fight the Taliban to whom more Afghanis are turning?
No one in the intelligence field still believes the Taliban has intercontinental terrorist reach or motivation. Is it reasonable to expect Afghan elections this year to bring in an Afghan government that is less out of touch and ethically challenged? Will an American "surge" in the volatile south, where Canadian troops are based, be seen positively by Afghans or not?
The Taliban insurgency today seems much more of an Afghan civil war than a jihad. But it is part and parcel of a larger regional crisis in South Asia.
To get moderate Taliban to a table with a credible Afghan government, we need Pakistan's intervention in its northern border areas to cut off the insurgents' supply centres.
But Pakistan's inherent instability is deepened by its perception that its eastern borders with India are its true military priority.
So, especially during a year that will also see Indian elections in the spring, the world needs Indian restraint on an almost Gandhian scale despite the enormous provocation of the attacks on Mumbai.
Canada has its own regional interests
Of course, the North American region needs to be Stephen Harper's principal focus, given the economic crisis that his government seems finally ready to acknowledge.
We need the often protectionist Democrats in Washington to keep the Canada-U.S. border as open as possible.
Some think that offering to stay in Afghanistan beyond 2011 is the way to win Washington's favour. But this is unlikely to happen and shouldn't make a political difference in any event.
What will make a difference is whether Canada can close our credibility gap on carbon emissions. Despite his economic troubles, Obama's empowerment of a top-flight energy and climate change team has to be seen in both Detroit and Edmonton as a sign he is serious about reducing America's carbon footprint.
We may also need to take a page from his book when it comes to seeking more joint decision-making and jurisdiction over a region where we should have inbuilt leadership capacity — the Arctic — to help cut through the competing "possession" claims that are bogging down the prospects of this vital regional asset.
The Arctic is an example of how the globe is changing physically as well as politically.
2009 could well be the year when the world shows that it can finally start to take hold and truly manage some of those changes.
The world has the technology, the know-how and, even in hard times, the resources to tackle many of humanity's most pressing problems. But massive choices have to be made. Will Canada be among those in the lead?
Viewpoint: Jeremy Kinsman
In: Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Other
Tags: Viewpoint, Theories, Future, Politics, Elections, Obama, Cheney, Expectations, Speculation, Hope, War, Peace, NWO,
Marked as: approved
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