First Black President tries to undo Bush-era hatred, but can he?

Phyllis Bennis: Where is the change in US foreign policy?
01 October 2009
In the media

President Barack Obama seized the world stage beginning at the United Nations and ending at The Group of Twenty economic summit in Pittsburgh.

Published at
The Final Call
UNITED NATIONS (FinalCall.com) - President Barack Obama seized the world stage beginning at the United Nations and ending at The Group of Twenty economic summit in Pittsburgh, Pa., as the month of September was closing.

The first Black U.S. president had a good week, according to some observers. His victories included announcing a new framework for global economic cooperation, pulling together the UK, France, Germany and even a reluctant Russia to pressure Iran to “come clean” about a formerly unknown nuclear facility, passing a UN Security Council resolution limiting nuclear arsenals and establishing the UN as the organization through which global climate change policy would be forged.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies called the president's revelation that Iran had a hidden nuclear facility “a form of international chess.” President Obama, speaking Sept. 25 in Pittsburgh at the meeting of the world's leading economic powers, said revelations that Iran had a nuclear enrichment facility were troubling and would be met with firmness.

The joint Western declaration, and Russia's willingness to tacitly join in, reflected the president's earlier message that the U.S. was willing to work with other nations to solve problems, but could not solve the world's problems alone. The hard stance on Iran, which warned of serious consequences if the nuclear facility was not open for an inspection, followed what critics called a naive call for international cooperation at the United Nations.

“I can report on what we achieved—a new commitment to meet common challenges and real progress in advancing America's national security and economic prosperity,” the president said Sept. 26 during his weekly address and as the G-20 meeting closed.

The U.S. has guided the G-20 participants to reach “an historic agreement” to reform global financial systems to make them more representative, said Mr. Obama. The number of nations that will control global economic policy will be expanded from the eight powers that have long made the rules, he said. The G-8 founded by France in 1975 and included the world's seven richest countries Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States and Russia was added. The group formed after the 1973 oil crisis that lead to a global recession and represented a joint approach to economic conditions and challenges.

The G-20 was formed in 1999 as an outgrowth global financial crisis that ended with the Asian financial meltdown. World leaders realized a need for an informal forum where industrial nations such as the U.S., Britain, France, Germany and Russia and emerging-market nations such as South Africa, Brazil, Turkey, South Korea and Indonesia could come together to discuss mutual interests on a more equal footing.

Observers called Mr. Obama's announcement that the G-20 would permanently replace the G-8 as the leading forum for cross-nation economic coordination “the most profound development” in global governance since the creation of the World Trade Organization in 1995.

“We can no longer meet the challenges of the 21st century economy with 20th century approaches,” Mr. Obama told leaders at the G-20 summit.

The Council on Foreign Relations in New York said Mr. Obama kicked off a new U.S. policy toward global governance by seeing and recognizing the shift in economic power. Emerging nations are demanding a greater say in world trade and global financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the council noted.

“The G-20 summit offered nothing to the working and poor people of the world; just more stimulus money for the banks, nothing about jobs,” countered Sara Flounders, co-founder of the International Action Center, and a participant in the “Bail Out the People Not the Banks” demonstrations in Pittsburgh during the G-20 meetings.

Ms. Flounders told The Final Call world leaders don't know how to fix the system. “Pittsburgh became our battleground for the call for a national jobs program; and we are encouraged by the numbers of young people that came out. And now the movement must continue to pressure the Obama administration to make good on domestic economic issues,” Ms. Flounders said.

Dr. Leonard Jeffries, a leading professor of Black and African Studies at City College in New York, noted there was no way to enforce G-20 resolutions. “Oh, sure it's a good model for the concept of empowerment, but European nations are diametrically opposed to empowering their former colonies,” Dr. Jeffries argued.

His message to Blacks was not to expect too many direct answers to their economic woes from the White House, despite having a Black man in the Oval Office. “There's no doubt whose interest the president represents, but was there a Black agenda or African agenda offered to the administration?” he asked. Black America has little leverage with the administration, Dr. Jeffries said.

Still the average Black man and woman now understands what affects this thing called a “global financial world” has taken auto-making jobs away from Detroit, is costing jobs elsewhere and they should have been paying close attention to what happened in Pittsburgh, he said.

Dr. Jeffries argued Blacks in Africa and the Diaspora must understand that global warming and the nuclear arms growth are issues they should be concerned about. “The African coastlines are being affected by global warming, as are the eco-systems of the Caribbean nations,” he said. “No African nation has nuclear capability, but we need our own analysis of the effect that nuclear weapons would have on our world.”

Junious Stanton, the Philadelphia-based “Black Communicator” and host of the Internet radio show “The Digital Underground,” wasn't as optimistic as those who thought the president was coming out on top. “Obama will be seen as an empty suit, if he doesn't come up with some meat and potatoes for Main Street,” he said.

On Sept. 24, Mr. Obama became the first U.S. president to chair a UN Security Council meeting. He managed to push through a U.S.-backed draft resolution that would strengthen the shaky international system for preventing the spread of nuclear arms.

Security experts called the six-page resolution the most significant UN action on nuclear weapons proliferation in years. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace noted Mr. Obama had succeeded where his predecessor had failed. “The Bush administration could never have gotten the Security Council to agree to the draft resolution,” said the organization.

Security Council observers say non-nuclear nations on the 15-member council such as Mexico, Libya and Viet Nam believe in the U.S. president's commitment to take practical steps towards ending the spread of nuclear weapons.

Mr. Obama also won high marks from members of the international community for his September 23 address before the 192-member UN General Assembly. He called for “new engagement.” The president pledged U.S. cooperation in solving problems, but cautioned that America cannot act alone in tackling the world's problems—putting the Bush era posture of unchecked and unapologetic U.S. action in the past.

Mr. Obama appeared to cede some of the authority back to the United Nations as a forum for hammering out disputes and warned fellow world leaders not to use the body to “play politics” and “stoke divisions.”

Observers say the president's words were eloquent, and many world leaders nodded their heads in agreement as he spoke. The Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister said, “Everybody was very energized by the speech.”

But while the speech reinforced foreign admiration, it fired up passions at home amongst those Americans who detest and have opposed him.

John Bolton, the former UN ambassador for the Bush administration, told the conservative National Review Online the president made “a very naïve” speech. An editorialist in Commentary magazine blasted the president for having what he termed a “clinical addiction” for criticizing the U.S. in an international forum.

Fidel Castro, former president of Cuba, complimented Mr. Obama for his “brave gesture” and “courage” in criticizing the U.S. at the UN.

“I hope Pres. Obama will move in the direction of change,” added Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Activist Viola Plummer of the New York-based December 12th Movement and analyst Phyllis Bennis, of the Transnational Institute and the Institute of Policy Studies, asked where is the change in American foreign policy they can believe in?

Mr. Obama addressed the Palestinian/Israeli conflict saying he hoped to work toward a comprehensive peace deal between Israel and its Arab neighbors. He convened a sideline meeting at the General Assembly between Palestinian leaders and Israeli leaders, who have not met in the past year.

With his “super star” status, the president has the capacity to gain more support than any president in the past few regimes to get the Middle East parties together to resolve the conflict, said Ms. Bennis. “But he refuses to use his political capital to get the Israelis to make real concessions on things such as freezing settlements, which he could do by refusing them their next $3 billion aid payment,” Ms. Bennis said.

While the president talked about helping Africa, he reportedly held a private luncheon for a select group of African leaders, while refusing to sit in the room with Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and the presidents of Eritrea, Kenya, Madagascar, Niger and Guinea, said Ms. Plummer.

“What has changed if the American administration still says they will choose what African leaders can speak for Africa?” she asked.

Bill Fletcher, executive editor of the Black Communicator and founder of the Center for Labor Renewal, believes the administration completely understood the immense historical symbolism of Mr. Obama's first appearance at the United Nations. “This administration is making a series of big mistakes because they are trying to shore up their image and appease the Republican right-wing,” he said.