Obama?s new world order


Obama's flagship Middle East speech in Cairo tomorrow will prove indicative of just how far he is willing to go in replacing the hostile Bush years.


An American President named Hussein will travel to tomorrow Cairo to make an historic overture to the Islamic world. He will stress his determination to replace the hostility of the Bush years with a new era of mutual respect; and he will point to his readiness to tackle the core issue of Palestine from the outset of his presidency as evidence of his good faith.           

This is audacious stuff. Yet it is only the latest of a series of such dramatic openings, through which President Obama is attempting to do nothing less than to reshape the global order. 

The economic crisis arguably forced the rapprochement with China (the ‘emerging' power that has now emerged, as the big winner from the world's financial turmoil). But no such circumstance prompted the move to ‘re-set' relations with Russia; or the journeys to mend fences with Latin America and with Turkey; or the extension of the hand to Tehran. These are all products of a deliberate policy. 

The unilateral moment has passed. America had its few short years as hyperpower, and it did neither America nor the world much good. Now, before our eyes, Obama is repositioning the US at the centre of a web of global bilateral partnerships - the ‘G2' economic relationship with China, the nuclear relationship with Russia, and so on. As in a Venn diagram, Obama is placing the US at that central point where all the different ellipses overlap. First among equals, and indispensable ally. 

Where, one might wonder, does this leave Europe? Europeans have grown used to the thought that the transatlantic relationship is the foundation of the international order. Following the difficult years of the Bush presidency, Obama has duly sought to restore transatlantic harmony as well, visiting Europe in April and, there too, extending the hand of partnership. He got very little back for his pains, whether in terms of help on Afghanistan or of support in stimulating the global economy. But if he lost sleep over this tepid European response, he showed no signs of it. In the new Obama world order, transatlantic relations are not the foundation, but just one of the Venn diagram's ellipses - as substantial, or not, as Europeans choose to make it. 

Whilst Europeans chew on that, they should also reflect on what this week's speech in Cairo by the new American president could mean for their own position in the Middle East. Europe has long cherished the belief that centuries of history and the facts of geography, not to mention more recent patterns of immigration, have given them some sort of special relationship with the Islamic world - an often strained and sometimes bloody relationship, it is true, but nonetheless one based on deep mutual familiarity. In European eyes, Americans dealing with Islam lack such sophisticated understanding, and often have no interest in acquiring it, seeing the land around and beyond Israel as populated largely by greedy oil sheikhs and dangerous religious fanatics. 

Like all caricatures, this European view has had some truth to it. And, though Europeans have lamented that fate has allocated the real power in the Middle East to their crass cousins, they have nonetheless done pretty well there, not least commercially, out of simply not being American. 

Now, listening to Obama in Cairo, they will have to ask themselves whether this is not another aspect of how the world works and the position which Europe occupies in it which is about to change. 

Expect a fine speech, and European applause - and listen for the growing undertone of anxiety that this bold young US president has just helped himself to some more of Europe's clothes.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

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