What the world wants from its president

Barack Obama will become the most powerful man in the world when he becomes president, and it's not just the US which is waiting to see what happens. Independent correspondents from around the world explain what other countries are expecting.
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Indy Politics


By John Lichfield

After eight years of a Bush administration which divided, ignored or patronised Europe, EU leaders are bubbling with excitement at the prospect of a more creative, transatlantic partnership with President-elect Barack Obama.

The European Commission president, Jose-Manuel Barroso spoke of a "new deal" between the US and the EU, to shape the global agenda from trade to human rights to climate change. The French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, said: "At a time when we all face immense challenges, your election will inspire immense new hope in France, in Europe and in the entire world."

The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, said, pointedly, that she that she looked forward to a "closer and more trusting cooperation between the United States and Europe."

Others warned, however, that, once the gloss wore off, an Obama presidency was likely to bump against fundamental differences of interest between Europe and the US on issues ranging from trade, to climate change and how to handle a more assertive or belligerent Russia.

There was also a notable difference of tone yesterday in the reactions of those countries dismissed by the Bush administration as "Old Europe" and the reactions of some of the former Soviet bloc countries, which had aligned themselves with the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld worldview.

Obama's triumph was received ecstatically in Germany and above all in France, where over 90 per cent of people had told pollsters that they wanted a Democratic victory. John McCain's defeat was seen as a crushing disavowal of the conservative and neo-conservative forces which orchestrated a bullying campaign of denigration of all things French after Paris had actively opposed the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

In Poland and the Czech Republic, the reaction was more muted. The Polish foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, said that he hoped the future President Obama would ignore Democratic Party misgivings and push ahead with the Bush administration's plans for an anti-missile defence and radar shield based in Poland and the Czech Republic. The shield – angrily opposed by Moscow - is likely to become a key litmus test of future US and European dealings with Russia.


by John Lichfield in Paris

In no other western country was a Barack Obama victory more anxiously awaited than in France. More than 90 per cent of French people – more than 90 per cent of the parliamentary deputies in President Nicolas Sarkozy's centre-right party – had told pollsters that they preferred Obama to John McCain.

The Democrat's sweeping victory was seen in France as an opportunity to create a more cooperative – and more equal – relationship between Europe and the United States, on issues ranging from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, to the global financial crisis and climate change.

More than that, Obama's triumph was seen as a crushing disavowal of the conservative and neo-conservative forces which orchestrated a bullying campaign of denigration of all things French after Paris had actively opposed the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

"Where George W. Bush pronounced, bulldozed and failed, Barack Obama will listen, cooperate and then decide," said Alain Duhamel, one of France's wisest political commentators.

President Nicolas Sarkozy has annoyed many French people – including some in his own camp – by ingratiating himself with the formerly frog-bashing Bush administration since his election 17 months ago. Even he, however, has scarcely hidden his preference for Obama in recent weeks.

In a glowing congratulatory letter yesterday, M. Sarkozy addressed to "Dear Barak (sic)", the president said that Mr Obama's "brilliant victory" and "exceptional campaign" had demonstrated to the world the continuing strength of American democracy.

"At a time when we all face immense challenges, your election will inspire immense new hope in France, in Europe and in the entire world," President Sarkozy said.

Francçis Hollande, the leader of the main opposition party, the Parti Socialiste, paid tribute to the "audacity and courage" of the American people for electing a "man of progress" despite the "colour of his skin".

He warned, however, that President Obama would govern in what he saw to be America's best interest. Despite the global excitement, Obama could not, and would not, be a "president of the world".

French diplomats issued similar words of caution in private. An Obama presidency, they said, should create a more equal and more cooperative transatlantic relationship. Once the gloss wore off, they warned, American interests would reassert themselves on such potential transatlantic flash-points as trade, global warming and relations with Russia.


By Patrick Cockburn

It became clear during the presidential election that neither Barack Obama nor John McCain had much idea of what was happening in Iraq. During the early stages of the campaign the two men were divided over the question of an American military withdrawal.

Mr Obama was only in the race because he had opposed the invasion in 2003. Mr McCain claimed the war could still be won.

This debate is now out of date, though nobody in the US has paid much attention to this in recent months because of the economic crisis. The Iraqi government is confidently demanding that the US withdraw its combat troops from the cities at the end of June 2009 and from Iraq entirely at the end of 2011. The timing of the pullout is not very different from Mr Obama's plan to withdraw over sixteen months.

The danger is that the new Democratic administration will be paralysed by fear that it will be accused of selling out Iraq just when victory was in sight. Mr Obama may also be tempted to appoint tired old foreign policy veterans of the Clinton administration, regardless of their previous lack of achievement in the Middle East, in a bid to reassure the powers that be in Washington that he plans no radical changes.

Iraqis, with the exception of the Kurds, will in general be overjoyed to see the back of President Bush. There is nothing new in this. Polls in Iraq have always shown that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was popular outside the Sunni community but the US military occupation was never accepted. The Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki is now portraying the stalled Status

of Forces Agreement with the US as a way of ending the occupation. It will be easier for Mr Obama than Mr Bush to make the necessary concessions, many of them cosmetic, to get the measure past the Iraqi parliament.

There is another area in which an Obama administration could make vital changes in policy. The two main allies of the present Iraqi government are Washington and Tehran, yet Mr Bush deluded himself that Iranian influence in Baghdad could be minimized. From the beginning his occupation of Iraq was undermined by his foolish portrayal of the invasion of Iraq as a staging post on the way to overthrowing the Iranian and Syrian governments.

Not surprisingly they made sure the occupation never stabilized. Once this self-destructive policy of confrontation is reversed and the US talks seriously to them then one of the main sources of instability in Iraq will disappear.


By Donald Macintyre

Outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert yesterday warmly congratulated Barack Obama for his "historic and impressive" victory. And certainly strenuous efforts have been made by Obama allies to reassure Israelis that they will in the words this week of Martin Indyk, Bill Clinton's one time ambassador to Tel Aviv, have a "true friend" in the new White House.

Much will depend on what you mean by friend. Given that Israel is facing an election of its own which could return the right under Benjamin Netanyahu to power, it is hard to forget Mr Obama's own remark, during the Ohio primary, that you didn't have to sign up to every policy of Likud—Mr Netanyahu's party—to be a friend of Israel.

The Israeli right has –surely correctly--feared that the new President, will not be the kind of friend who can make a Knesset speech, as his predecessor did earlier this year, which utterly fails even to exhort Israel to make concessions for peace.

The left has hoped that he will be the kind of candid friend who pushes Israel towards the agreed end to the occupation which they hope he believes is in its own –and America's--interests.

Some in the middle—and in the Israeli establishment—actually see the Obama victory as a positive on Iran despite worries about his willingness to engage with Tehran, on the grounds that he has a much better chance of building an international coalition to stop it building nuclear weapons. Their fear is rather that domestic preoccupations — notably economic — will stop him prioritising the Middle East, including a deal with Syria, which would require the US at the table.

Bush has left more of an Israeli-Palestinian process, however flawed, than Clinton did after the collapse of Camp David. It is beset with problems including the control of Gaza by Hamas, whom Obama has said he won't talk to unless they transform their stance. And many Palestinians, their hopes raised and dashed so often before, are anyway sceptical if an Obama presidency will make much difference. But Ghassan Khatib, the moderate Palestinian intellectual and former minister said yesterday by defusing the Iran crisis Mr Obama could create a markedly better atmosphere in the region, including for progress in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Their hope will be that he will at least fulfil his promise this year to make—in stark contrast to Bush and several other presidents—to make the Middle East a first term priority.


By Andrew Buncombe

Pakistan is the crucible of south Asia whose stability is key to containing the spread of Islamic militancy. More than a year ago, Obama angered Pakistan by voicing his support for airstrikes against al-Qa'ida militants inside the country on the border with Afghanistan and even the deployment of troops if Islamabad "cannot or will not act" against them. His promise to "take out" militants in the tribal areas was not well received.

In reality, the Pakistan government would have worked with the administration of whichever candidate had won. The policies of Mr Obama and Mr McCain were little different in regard to targeting militants in the tribal areas. Both men have also stressed the importance of the military operation in Afghanistan. Mr Obama said he will send an additional 7,000 US troops.

Pakistan's prime minister congratulated Mr Obama, saying he hoped he would promote peace and stability. "I hope that under your dynamic leadership, the United States will continue to be a source of global peace and new ideas for humanity," said Yousuf Gilani.

While some commentators in Pakistan have pointed out that "Democrats traditionally support India while Republicans favour Pakistan", few are expecting a radical shift in US policy. "It's not going to make much difference," said Dr Rasul Baksh Rais, of the Lahore University of Management Sciences. "The US will continue its policy in Afghanistan. As far as this is concerned there seems to be consensus."

More recently the now president-elect had talked of India and Pakistan finding a solution to the Kashmir problem. He said Pakistan needed to concentrate on dealing with militants, rather than the perceived threat from India. Many thought it was commonsense, but some in India believed he was proposing a US involvement in the issue, even raising the prospect of former president Bill Clinton being dispatched as a special envoy.

Unsurprisingly, in both India and Pakistan Obama has captured the imagination of younger people. While Indian culture traditionally respects its elders - and elects leaders who might look decidedly antique almost anywhere else - in India his campaign has received celebrity-style coverage in the run-up to the election. For a part of the world that for some long lived under foreign, white, ruled, the election of a non-White president by the world's most powerful democracy clearly has resonance.

In a message to Mr Obama, India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, said: "Your extraordinary journey to the White House will inspire people not only in your country but also around the world."


By Daniel Howden in Nairobi

Barack Obama's victory was greeted with such enthusiasm across the largest and poorest continent on earth that it seemed at times to be an African, not an American election. It is here that the people he invoked "huddled around radios in forgotten corners of the world," are to be found.

However, Africa was almost invisible in the candidate's position papers, with references to Sudan, Aids and aid all largely indistinguishable from those of John McCain.

He is feted as a symbol, as a communicator and as an agent of change, and many suspect his greatest impact is likely to be limited to the first of those three.

In Kenya, the land of his father's birth, expectations and reality clash most obviously. The country already enjoys a serious aid budget and the continent's largest US diplomatic presence, change is unlikely.

Liberia's president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a close ally of Washington, welcomed his election but said that Africans should not expect anything dramatic, especially while the US has its own economic crisis.

Not everyone moved to dampen expectations though. South Africa's president Kgalema Motlanthe said: "We express the hope that poverty and under-development in Africa, which remains a challenge for humanity, will indeed continue to receive a greater attention of the focus of the new administration."

The one area likely to be addressed in some form is Sudan. Darfur, and before it the plight of Christians in South Sudan, has captured the attention of the American public and by extension its politicians.

There is a perception that Democrats have taken a softer approach to the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum.


By Paul Scheltus in Buenos Aires

Latin Americans are hoping for more carrot and less stick from President Obama than under his predecessor, President Bush. Immigration will be top of the agenda for most governments. Legalising the estimated 15 million illegal workers in the US and introducing a temporary worker programme, as well as secure borders are a priority for all Latin American nations, according to former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castañeda.

In Buenos Aires yesterday morning young people from several Latin American nations echoed that theme. "It was time for a change," said 24-year old Nacho Giretti. "I hope that from now on the treatment of immigrants in the United States will be more humane." Under President Obama, relations with Cuba are expected to change. Obama has said he will ease travel restriction and allow unlimited remittances to be sent. Those signs were welcomed by dissidents and party officials in Cuba alike.

Pending free trade agreements, drug trafficking and energy policy are just some of many regional issues that need urgent attention. All require that President Obama "extend a hand" to Latin America, as he has promised he will.


By Clifford Coonan

Although China is not a democracy and is run as a single-party state by the Communist Party, there has been keen interest in the election among the Chinese.Beijingers enthusiastically welcomed the election of Barack Obama as a victory for an attractive young candidate who would boost US-Chinese relations and resolve the global financial crisis.

"Obama is great. This election has really changed the history of America and racism in America. Obama can handle the economy better than Bush, he is more open to new things and also he won't start a war somewhere," said Hu Feimin, 26, a secretary from Anhui province.

The Beijing leadership is anxious to ensure change in the world's most powerful country does not harm the interests of China, an emerging superpower.

"America has changed colour, it's good. Now I hope to see practical progress in future relations between China and America," said Liu Chenbing, 32, an engineer from Shanxi province. "What I hope for most is that America can do something good for unification with Taiwan and that the American financial crisis can be dealt with quickly and effectively," he said.

President George Bush is popular here, but state media ran resoundingly positive coverage of Obama's win, suggesting the official view on Obama is this is a president the Chinese leadership can do business with. State broadcaster CCTV hailed his Confucian qualities of filial piety and his strong family values.

Pundits hailed the incoming president as a positive symbol of change of the US.

"In the last 30 years, the relationship between China and the USA has come a long way. I believe the new government will continue to strengthen the cooperation between China and the U.S.A.," said Tao Wenzhao, an American Studies researcher at the influential Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Shen Tianhong, 25, who works at a property management company, was surprised by the result.

"I thought white people dominated America and the presidency. But it's a good decision," she said.

"This is better for the world. And Obama can handle the American financial crisis more quickly, so that is good for China," said Ms Shen.

Zou Qinyue, manager of a Sichuan restaurant, was focused on the economic aspect.

"Black or white, he must have something special to become president. I hope the economy stabilises, because then the global economy will stablise."

Some young people learned what they know about US politics from watching US TV shows.

"The funny thing is that in "24", there is a black president also. A black president can do good in his presidency, just like David Palmer," said university student Zhu Ming.