Today's date:
Winter 2009

Obama, Look East

Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, has just published The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East.

Singapore—Barack Obama’s presidency will stir the world. It will restore a lot of the faith that the world’s population once had in America. Many will say, “Only in America” could the son of an African father be elected president. America will once again become a beacon of hope. At least half of the anti-Americanism around the world will disappear with Obama’s presidency.

But such great hopes also create great dangers. Both Americans and the rest of the world will expect many of America’s problems with the world to disappear overnight.

Many Americans naively believe that America will naturally reconnect with the world once George W. Bush leaves office. Certainly a change in personalities will help. However, what is really required is a change in policies. This will be a lot more difficult.

America’s intelligentsia has truly let down the American people by failing to educate them on how much the world has changed. “Steady as she goes” is no longer an option for America. Like any other nation, America, powerful though it may be, will have to adjust and adapt to new global realities.

There are at least three major adjustments America will have to make.

First, it has to deal with new economic competition. America was right to promote free trade. The world hopes that it will continue to do so. But free trade and free-market economies also lead to “creative destruction.” Henry Ford destroyed the horse-and-buggy industry. Today Ford, General Motors and others have to deal with more effective competition from overseas. Why have they not prepared themselves? Who has been sleeping on the job?

Second, America has to deal with new global challenges, from global warming to global epidemics. All solutions to these problems require global cooperation. America will have to rediscover the value of multilateral cooperation. United Nations bashing will have to stop. Americans will have to learn to compromise to achieve consensus. Can America compromise?

Third, in the coming Asian century, America will have to give priority to the Pacific over the Atlantic. The g-8, NATO and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development are organizations of the past. The future lies in Asia. Will Obama travel more across the Pacific or the Atlantic?

None of these adjustments will be easy. The fundamental problem here is that the American people have not been prepared. Obama won’t be able to achieve miracles. Nor should he try. But he could be different from Bush in one key aspect. He could show America and the world that America once again has a thoughtful and reflective president who is prepared to speak honestly to the American people, not nurture their illusions.

And he could also show once again a decent respect for the opinions of all mankind. With this small but significant start, he could put America back on the right track again.