Obama and the Return of the Real | The Nation


Obama and the Return of the Real

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Jonathan Schell
Jonathan Schell is the Lannan Fellow at The Nation Institute and teaches a course on the nuclear dilemma at...

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After 9/11, the US invented a new kind of borderless, pre-emptive warfare, plunging the world into an endless cycle of violence.

The United States is no Soviet Union—and yet it has set up machinery that satisfies certain tendencies that are in the genetic code of totalitarianism.

I see the work of gods who pile tower-high the pride of those who were nothing, and dash present grandeur down.
   --Euripides, in The Trojan Women,
    referring to the fall of Troy

The inauguration of Barack Obama, "whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant," is both a culmination and a beginning. The culmination is the milestone represented by the arrival of a black man in the office of president of the United States. That achievement reaches back to the founding ideals of the Republic--"all men are created equal"--which have been fulfilled in a new way, even as it resonates around a world in which for centuries white imperialists have subjected people of color to oppression. The event fully justifies the national and global jubilation it has touched off. This much is truly accomplished, signed and sealed.

The beginning is, at the very least, the beginning of post-George W. Bush America, and fact-tempered hope rather than joy must be the keynote. In this context, the event is like a candle that has been lit in a dark and gusty room. How high its light will blaze is anything but clear. For the election of this unreasonably talented and appealing man occurred together with a remarkable array of crises, of which the economic one is only the newest. A man and an hour: a familiar matchup. A lot has been said about the man. Analyzing the makeup of the new administration has become the new Kremlinology, and a good deal of ink has been spilled pondering whether the avatar of "vision" has opted instead for the status quo, whether the fresh breeze from the hustings has already stagnated in the swamps of the capital, whether a bold campaign platform is being traded in for mainstream governance. And it is true that a centrist drift has been unmistakable. Joe Biden as vice president, Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, Robert Gates as defense secretary and Larry Summers as chief economic adviser--these are hardly fresh faces. The $275 billion tax cut as part of the stimulus plan was not calculated to please the Democratic "base." Yet other appointments, especially those to environmental posts, have suggested a more venturesome presidency. And public expectations are high: nearly 80 percent of the people are hopeful about his presidency.

But what of the hour--the broad shape of the new world that Obama and all of us will face? If only the economic crisis were involved, the path ahead would have something of the known and familiar. Economic cycles come and go, and even the Great Depression eased up in a little more than a decade. But this year's crisis is attended by--or embedded in--at least four others of even larger scope. The second is the shortage of natural resources, beginning with fossil fuels. Oil prices have fallen sharply from their peak of last summer, but does anyone doubt that when the economy bounces back those prices will rise with it?

A third crisis--less on the public mind, perhaps, because it is so old it is taken for granted--is the spread of nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction. The problem is not so much an arms race (though Russia has just announced a step-up in its production of intercontinental ballistic missiles and the Defense Department is bent on modernizing the US arsenal) as arms seepage, arms osmosis, owing to the deadly know-how that is spreading from brain to brain in a kind of virtual pollution.

A fourth crisis is the ecological one, comprising global warming, the wholesale human-caused annihilation of species, population growth, water and land shortage, and much else. Like nuclear danger, the planetary ecological crisis threatens something that has never been at stake before our era: the natural foundations of life on which humans and all species depend for survival. Economic and military ups and downs are for a season only. Extinction is forever.

Cutting across all these crises is a fifth that will be of immediate concern to the new president: the failure of the American bid for global empire and the consequent decline of American influence abroad. The roots of the American will to empire go deep into history but reached full flower in the Bush administration. The bid has run aground in the sands of Iraq and in the mountains of Afghanistan, among other places. Even in the unlikely event that Obama escapes those quagmires without precipitating new fiascoes, the appetite for military takeovers of other countries (an idea already thoroughly discredited more than a generation ago in Vietnam) is going to be dead for a long time. The world is not going to be run by the Pentagon, and everyone knows it. The downfall of overambitious, overreaching empires is an old tale. Yet if the other crises on the agenda are to be addressed, the world must be run somehow or other. The reason is not that anyone loves world government but that the problems present themselves on a global basis and will not yield to provincial solutions. The American decline thus creates--or perhaps merely accentuates--a global political vacuum. It will not be enough to mouth the words "cooperation" and "multilateralism." Something more muscular, something more definite, will be required. (In this effort, by definition a common one, the United States must of course play a significant role.)

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