Philip Bobbitt: The flag-waving is over. This is how the president can change the world

Barack Obama's priority must be the economy, says former Washington strategist

Americans have always been a little flag-crazy, and I am no exception. Shortly after 9/11, I happened to arrive at JFK - the same airport runway from which I had watched the Trade Towers explode - and saw through the airplane porthole an airport worker waving the plane to its berth.

He was guiding the pilot with the usual gestures, except that in each hand he held a small American flag. I remembered on Tuesday night how moved I had been by this simple expression of solidarity. That evening the crowds in Harlem were exuberant, and amid all the car honking, and the music from every quarter, there were hundreds of persons, black and white but mostly black, waving American flags. Just writing those words brings back that same spontaneous ache, only an involuntary smile comes too.

The first phase of the wars on terror is over. The US has conquered its fear of the unknown - for a time, as there will surely be new and justified fears to face down. By electing a figure largely unknown a year ago, an African-American who has had to live by his wits, whose middle name is Hussein and whose father was a Muslim, the US has decisively rejected offshore penal colonies, deceptive rationalizations for warfare, secret torture chambers, and contempt for the constitutional and international law that would forbid such activities. Indeed by selecting a former law professor, the country has thoroughly dismissed the notion that law is an obstacle rather than a guide to achieving security.

We know what security policies Obama is against. What are some of the international programs he should be for?

His first priority must be economic. It can be argued that the principal contribution of the US to global security in the last 50 years has been the maintenance of a relatively free trading system and a relatively stable currency. Recent events in the financial markets put both these achievements at risk. Next weekend President Bush convenes a meeting of 20 world leaders to discuss the global financial crisis. It would be well if President-elect Obama made an appearance at this meeting to emphasize - as only he can - that a global, multilateral approach to the crisis of credit that is enveloping the world’s economies will be the centerpiece of his first months in office.

Addressing this crisis from a national point of view will lead to ruin globally. The Japanese want to talk down the yen; we should help them because of the unusual investment advantages brought by the yen carry trade, not simply to sell more Toyotas. The British want international cooperation around an EU plan for stabilizing global markets; we should follow their lead because London and New York are the centers of both the crisis and its remedies. Just as a national approach will be fatal internationally, nationalizing failing businesses will be equally disastrous domestically. Instead of more State-owned-enterprises, we shall need more Sovereign wealth funds, investing in the best run companies rather than managing the affairs of the worst.

His most urgent security problems arise in Pakistan. The increasingly frantic efforts of the US administration to capture bin Laden, are only further roiling troubled waters in that impoverished but nuclear armed state. Obama will want to be careful not to be forced into any desperate moves initiated by the outgoing administration, just as Eisenhower’s plan to remove Castro ensnared Kennedy at the Bay of Pigs.

Obama is not identified with the failure of the US to support the rule of law in Pakistan, owing to our understandable concern to fight terrorists in Afghanistan. He has pledged to increase US forces in Afghanistan. Our efforts there will only succeed if he can win Pakistani support, in part perhaps, by negotiating with some elements in the Taleban for a share of power.

His trickiest challenge will come from the Democratic Congress and many of his own supporters over the issue of international trade. To some extent these problems are the consequence of the political campaign just finished. This is scarcely unique to Obama: Eisenhower’s campaign pledge to “roll back” Soviet domination in Eastern Europe, Kennedy’s promise to reverse a “missile gap” that turned out to be illusory, Nixon’s “secret plan’ to end the war in Vietnam, Clinton’s commitment to accept open gays in the military, George W. Bush’s repeated rejection of “nation building” are all examples of campaign-created hangovers for the incoming administration.

Any effort to renegotiate NAFTA (which barely achieved ratification the first go round), or worse, to try to insulate US workers from the coming increases in unemployment by protectionist trade practices would bring a world-wide recession. The chief economist for the AFL-CIO was quoted the other day as saying, “China is the issue that should be part of Obama’s trade policy right away,” and we can be sure that she was not urging freer trade.

His easiest problem - though by no means insignificant - may well be the conflict in Iraq. Here his occasionally improvident campaign pledges to withdraw US combat forces will actually win credibility for US efforts from Shia politicians who do not trust the current US administration and have therefore refused to sign a Status of Forces Agreement.

The success of the surge did not help John McCain, who supported it, but rather has bought time for the Iraqi government to strengthen its own forces and make a US withdrawal less perilous. Obama is already committed, wisely in my view, to increasing the size of the American army and marine corps and has called for training in foreign languages and the recruitment of foreign language speaking men and women. He appreciates that our trouble in Iraq wasn’t just having too small a force, but having the wrong force.

The problems that will require the most adroit diplomacy lie in the architecture of international institutions. The UN Security Council, the IMF and the World Bank, Bretton Woods, NATO - all are artifacts of World War II and the Long War of which it was a part. Victory in that war has, ironically, made the institutions that assured Western preeminence inadequate. New states must be brought into the leadership of the global organizations and the regional ones - like NATO - must be supplemented with something like a league of democracies that is global. Russia should be brought into the WTO; China should be offered something like the status Russia enjoys with respect to the G7.

The unknown problem for which the new president must plan is the next phase in the wars on terror. The US should join the International Criminal Court in order to create a forum for trying terrorists. The Geneva Conventions should be updated to cope with the change in warfare we are experiencing. Precautions like providing for the replacement of congressmen killed or disabled in an attack, and the replenishment of the Supreme Court following an atrocity should be given a green light. Closing Guantanamo is a necessary gesture, but no more than that; we must still develop the protocols of due process that will enable us to detain the truly dangerous without wholly relying on the ordinary criminal law.

The long term problem which the new administration must address is denuclearization. Drastically cutting US arsenals, joining the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, offering security guarantees to Middle Eastern states in preparation for the day Iran gets nuclear weapons, putting greater resources in the security of the Russian, Indian and Pakistani stockpiles, and a nuclear fuel bank are all measures that can help. But until there is a long term strategy to denuclearize regions, the threat of a catastrophe will persist.

Tackling climate change is at once the simplest and the most complex of the problems Obama will face. The simple truth is that the US can demonstrate leadership by encouraging energy conservation, reducing its oil consumption through more efficient technologies, increasing the share of American electricity from renewable sources, and developing low-carbon forms of energy. The complex fact is that it will be very difficult to persuade other states to make costly changes in their drive for development because we fear the long term consequences of the lifestyles we already enjoy and they covet.

In a famous passage F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “ France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still that quality of the idea, was harder to utter - It was a willingness of the heart.” On Tuesday, the American people demonstrated just that trait. Wish us well.

Philip Bobbitt is professor of jurisprudence at Columbia University and a former senior adviser at the White House. He is author of 'Terror and Consent: The Wars for the 21st Century'