Obama’s ability to draw attention across the globe is incredible. There are even posters of him with a local political leader in many parts of Madras – something I have never seen of a foreign leader before. His appeal was clear in other parts of the world as well seen from the clamour in Israel and the crowds in Berlin. While he has the charisma to influence, I feel that he’s too stuck in the idioms of the past to bring any change in international relations.
While he talks a lot of changing partitions and a globalising world, Obama’s division of the world as the West and Rest is clear throughout the speech. He had little to talk of the rest that was positive. His references to the rest of the world was littered with terms like poverty, poppy seeds, terror, leaks of nuclear secrets, etc. The only positive reference was that of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. He was also firmly stuck in the idiom of the “white man’s burden” of bringing prosperity, liberty, and peace to the world. There is no recognition in this man that the West has played a dual role in this matter. While the West has taken significant efforts to help the poor, it has also swindled. While the West has tried its hand at bringing liberty it has both imperialised nations and supports dictators.
Ignoring West’s dual role enables Obama to claim that Afgan people need “our” [Western] support against Taliban without a touch of irony. He could talk of supporting the Blogger in Iran and voter in Zimbawe but is silent on prisoner in Guantanamo or Abu Gharib. The world has seen with horror West coming to the “rescue” people of other countries time and again for many centuries as of today.
Let me reiterate here that there are two contradictory things happening at the same time: one on hand, there are people genuinely concerned in the West about people elsewhere. There is genuine commitment of money, time and lives to assist unknown people elsewhere. This is wonderful, and it must continue. At the same time the West has been the worst of colonisers and it continues to support dictators around the world. West’s role in creating and supporting Taliban, Saddam, Osama himself, and many other dictators should not be forgotten. Obama will do little service to the world by extending the idiom of White man’s burden. If he wants to bring a real politics of hope in international relations he has to start dealing with the likes of School of Americas, stop propping up puppet regimes, stop interfering with domestic politics elsewhere, stop arming dictators, and stop waging useless wars.
It would be remarkable if he could bring these issues into the public domain with the same grit and charisma the he showed when talking of race. Acknowledging West’s dual role and promising to end the oppressive side of it would be the really radical step that can bring a hopeful turn to international relations. But going by Obama’s idioms at Berlin, hope has no hope on this front.