Thursday, May 14, 2009

Obama and the power of ideas: Part 2

In part one of 'Obama and the Power of Ideas' we laid down our philosophical opinions about what ideas are, and how they may be used for good or evil in the world. As promised, we will now explore how President Obama can put to use the immense political capital he enjoys in America, and the world, to steer the ship of American foreign policy back into calmer waters.

Obama will be speaking next month in Egypt, a country that many Arabs still see as the heart of contemporary Arabic culture and identity. The speech's importance will depend on its content. Foreign public speeches, especially when they are delivered by the President of the United States, are important. They can affect public and elite opinions around the world in serious ways, and what region is more in need of soft-diplomacy than the Middle East today? The Cairo speech will be a chance for Obama to build on the idea upon which he was elected: change.

The speech must therefore inspire the millions of relatively deprived citizens of the region. It must remind the people that while their leaders may not necessarily hear their calls for political freedom, America does. But it will not force it on them or bring about such changes by throwing their societies into further disarray.

The speech must also heavily touch on the number-one problem of the Middle East - the Arab-Israeli conflict. Obama and his speech writers cannot possibly underestimate the importance of this conflict to the region's citizens. He must be steadfast in his support for peace and provide not simply empty rhetoric, but a clear message that peace between Israel and the Arabs will be at the top of his foreign policy agenda. If the message wavers in this regard he will almost instantly turn-off millions of listeners.

With regards to other regions of the world, Obama must continue to send the message that America is listening, not simply pretending too, and contemplating ways to accommodate the multiplicity of voices and interests. This is not an 'apologetic or appeasement' strategy like Obama's critiques claim. It is the smart thing to do in order to tame the surge in anti-Americanism that followed Bush's disastrous eight years in power.

Without softening the almost reflexive resistance to American power and ideals that has spread around the world, Washington will have a much harder time pursuing its interests without relying on 'hard-power'. Soft-power, of which public diplomacy is a crucial pillar, will have to be a cornerstone of his foreign policy strategy, not a by-product.

In this regard, Obama's decision to seek readmission into the United Nations Human Rights Council, after Bush withdrew from it, is a welcome development. After all, we have already seen what over-reliance on military strength and economic sanctions have achieved, do we really want more of the same?

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