Barack Obama

And what about China?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 January, 2009, 12:00am

US President Barack Obama had no time to climb inside his 'golden cage' of the White House before icy economic reality blasted his triumphal Inauguration Day. Even as he delivered his inaugural address, the Dow Jones index plummeted, new doubts rose about the solvency of banks and the financial system, the US dollar yo-yoed again, fresh layoffs were announced round the world, and economists were predicting another 600,000 US jobs would be lost in the coming months.

Let us not begrudge the new president or his country the glory of the inauguration, a uniquely peaceful transfer of power from one party and president to another, American commentators boasted.

More important, this first black president is a liberator. Jesuit priest John Dear aptly quoted a wise Native American elder that Mr Obama 'has liberated white Americans from their role as oppressors. Not all have understood this or accepted it, but it is a great gift.'

The president made a brave inaugural speech offering a more hopeful dawn of American policy, a hand of friendship for Muslims, help for the people of poor nations 'to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds', along with words of warning for corrupt leaders or those who try to resort to terror.

But the magic of a new, young president with refreshing new ideas is not sufficient to begin to overcome the plethora of problems confronting America and the world, as Mr Obama acknowledged.

He admitted that America is in the midst of crisis and listed a grim catalogue, including war against 'a far-reaching network of violence and hatred', a weakened economy - 'a consequence of greed and irresponsibility' - homes lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered, health care too costly, schools failing. On top of this, he added: 'Each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.'

Mr Obama appealed to Americans to accept 'a new era of responsibility' and evoked and invoked the spirit of previous generations from the time of the founding fathers dedicated to 'carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation, the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness'.

That noble ideal was easier to pursue in the simpler world of two centuries ago of a small group of revolutionaries against the colonial power, and then the settlers against the wilderness. Even in those brave frontier days, as Mr Obama omitted to point out, native Americans and slave African-Americans were not regarded as equal or free to pursue the opportunities of happiness. Slaves, not free men, built the White House in which he now lives.

Today, the world is full of clashing interests that will not easily sit together. Mr Obama noted the great power of the market to generate wealth and expand freedom, but he cautioned that 'this crisis has reminded us that, without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control - and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favours only the prosperous.'

But the policies that brought the US to its present parlous state were adopted by a president and Congress chosen by the American people. Who is to tell if Mr Obama will make better choices?

So far, he is following a wiser path than his predecessor in appealing to the American people that their future is in striving together, not, like George W. Bush, going forward alone with God on his side.

Having thanked Mr Bush for his service, Mr Obama immediately disavowed his conduct of foreign policy. He pointed out that older generations had 'understood that our power alone cannot protect us, not does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use: our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.'

What was surprising - and rather worrying - was Mr Obama's complete omission of any reference to the new power on the global block - China.

The US today needs to develop a new sophisticated and grown-up relationship with China, and not merely because Beijing holds huge piles of American debt and has made US companies profitable by outsourcing production and selling their Chinese-made goods at home.

Beijing's co-operation is essential in tackling global problems like climate change, Middle East turmoil, nuclear issues of North Korea and Iran, and impoverished Sudan, Zimbabwe and Myanmar. In the case of the latter, China has preferred to sit on the sidelines or profited from selling arms or buying raw materials, rather than looking at the longer-term moral questions Mr Obama raised.

Kevin Rafferty is editor-in-chief of PlainWords Media