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[Editorial] New Global Leadership of Obama`s America

Posted November. 06, 2008 09:38,   


Barack Obama opened up a new era yesterday by getting elected the 44th president of the United States. This was a historical moment for America and the world not only because he became the first African-American leader in the 232-year history of his country, but also because he won the White House through the promise of “change and hope.” He now faces a daunting challenge to deliver on his promise of changing the world into a more peaceful and prosperous place.

Obama is the epitome of the crumbling of racial barriers as well as national borders. He was born to a Kenyan father and a white Kansas mother and partially raised in Indonesia. Though growing up black with the middle name “Hussein,” which comes from his Kenyan father, he has largely led the life of a mainstream white American. His election with this background is the result of a growing call to break racial and ideological barriers that have long dogged the United States, and to bring about a more democratic and plural world.

Both the United States and the world are in the doldrums. Though the collapse of the Soviet Union put an end to four decades of the Cold War and marked the victory of liberal democracy, the luster of the free world and capitalism has diminished since due to ineffective leadership. U.S. President George W. Bush`s eight years in office has been a drag on the world. The Bush administration’s responses in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks were the culmination of its unilateralism. The United States waged war in Afghanistan and Iraq without communication and agreement with the international community, and now is paying a huge price for that. Many say the U.S.-led financial crisis was an inevitable result of the free-wheeling style of American capitalism.

Obama must take up the task of cleaning up the mess made by his predecessor and restore America’s legacy. The international community is disillusioned with U.S. unilateralism, but doesn’t want confusion and ineffectiveness that a weak America will bring about, either. Some are urging the setup of a multi-polar international order centered on the United States, China, the European Union and Japan, but whether this can work well in times of chaos like now is doubtful.

The best alternative for Washington is to build its new leadership. The leadership the world wants is one with humility that starts from the awareness that “there is nothing the United States can do alone,” as stressed by Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. What this means is that from the resolution of Iran’s nuclear program to the formation of a new global financial framework, the United States should communicate and cooperate with international society. This is the surest path to minimize the adverse effects of globalization while spreading freedom, market capitalism and human rights across the world, values which the United States and the world cherish. We hope the G20 summit in Washington on the financial crisis Nov. 15 will be the first step toward this path, though Obama cannot attend.

For South Korea, an Obama era will serve not only as a challenge but also as an opportunity. On North Korea’s nuclear dismantlement, Obama has expressed his willingness to talk with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. His well-intentioned proposal, however, could hinder the six-party talks. Pyongyang might also seek dialogue with Washington, but direct talks must come only when the United States is sure that they will lead to the denuclearization of the North. If the new U.S. administration sticks to this principle, Seoul and Washington can cooperate in creating a favorable atmosphere for Pyongyang to scrap its nuclear program and open up its country to the outside world.

Obama has explicitly opposed the South Korea-U.S. free trade agreement and wants a renegotiation. When the U.S. Congress was under Democratic control, Washington conducted renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993 and a free trade deal with Colombia last year. So Seoul must avoid a renegotiation. For this reason, the government and the ruling Grand National Party want a quick parliamentary approval of the accord. Given that the agreement will affect bilateral relations, a bipartisan effort is badly needed. Also worrisome is that Democratic administrations have traditionally tilted toward protectionism under the pretext of fair trade.

Another disturbing aspect is the prospect of potential U.S. isolationism under Obama. Chances are that the new leadership will focus on domestic issues such as healthcare reform and reduction of the budget deficit, while distancing itself from global issues like the Iraq war. If so, Obama could propose a cut in U.S. forces abroad, including those in South Korea, with some of them redispatched to Afghanistan. With the transfer of wartime operation control to South Korea slated for 2012, Seoul must keep a close eye on possible shifts in U.S. policy and respond wisely.

The change of administration in the world’s sole superpower and our closest ally will inevitably bring about many changes on various fronts. The key is how to adjust to the new situation and ride out ensuing difficulties. It is undesirable to expect that a Democratic U.S. administration will establish diplomatic ties with North Korea. Equally undesirable is our government’s failure to flexibly respond to the changed situation. We should make the most of the changes the new U.S. leadership will bring to both the United States and the international community.