Inauguration of the Obama Administration and Changes in the World Order

Faculty Fellow, RIETI

Democratic candidate Barack Obama won the Nov. 4, 2008, U.S. presidential election. As Obama was the first African-American to be elected president, the election was a historical milestone for the United States. Obama's election was also significant for the rest of the world.

The world is undergoing a period of great turmoil, of a kind that only occurs once every few decades. The financial crisis that resulted from the U.S. subprime loan issue is growing worse. The situation is of course capturing the attention of the global community. We must, however, not forget that conflicts involving such powers as the U.S. and Russia are occurring in many parts of the world, including Iraq, Afghanistan and Georgia. In a term, the world is currently "on fire."

The simultaneous emergence of these problems is not pure coincidence. In my view, it indicates that the world order has entered a stage of structural change. This transition has already been reflected in the stricter financial regulation advocated at the Seventh Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM 7) in Beijing, and the first G-20 summit.

Globalization under the U.S. initiative has led the world for the last three decades or so. In a role that began to take full effect during the Reagan Administration, the U.S. has positioned itself at the center of the world order with the dollar as the strong key currency, a huge consumer market, and supremacy in the field of high-tech weaponry. However, a confrontation of asymmetric threats, including twin deficits, terrorism and nuclear proliferation has gradually exposed the limitations of this structure. The present difficult position of the Bush Administration reflects such limitations.

Emergence of a new class of leaders

It is significant that in such times people in the U.S. chose Barack Obama, a young leader of an unprecedented mold. Their choice is significant because Obama has qualities that differ greatly from past American presidents. Obama is not only an African-American president, but also the child of an African-born father and Caucasian mother from a liberal family. He experienced the societies of Indonesia and Hawaii during his youth, and has close relatives in Kenya, the country of his father. As this background suggests, Obama has deep connections with the non-Western world not found in any U.S. president to date.

I believe such a person was elected president because people in the U.S. are taking a serious view of the current position of their country and sensing the need for sweeping change. In that sense, the "change" advocated by Obama was not only a message criticizing the Bush Administration in power, but also a word that seized the American consciousness at a deeper level.

Obama displayed his extraordinary qualities through superior oratory capabilities and leadership in a campaign that gave the impression of great maturity. Whether or not he will be a successful president remains to be seen. What can be said at this point is that Obama's election made it possible for the U.S. to choose its leaders from an unprecedented range of classes. His election opened the door for U.S. citizens of ethnic minority and immigrant backgrounds from the non-Western world to become elected leaders. This fact is consistent with the present world order, which is undergoing the vast changes stated above in which the political and economic influences of non-Western countries are noticeably growing.

Search for a new political and economic order

Getting the economic crisis under control is undoubtedly an immediate task for the Obama Administration. The prescription for accomplishing this will include strengthening the financial sector and adopting economic stimulus measures. I expect that in time the Obama Administration will be asked to integrate this prescription with medium- and long-term political and economic visions.

The Obama Administration's response will likely combine measures for climbing out of the recession with energy-saving initiatives, new energy development, and revitalization plans for the industrial sector via the prioritization of environmental responses that include global warming countermeasures. The incoming administration may, for instance, support the revitalization of the U.S. auto industry, currently in critical condition, within the context of resource and environmental measures.

At the same time, the Obama Administration is expected to place foreign relations with Middle Eastern nations, European nations and Russia as its top diplomatic priority. The Administration's ability to succeed the Bush Administration in righting the war on terrorism and stabilizing relations with Russia, which now include conflicts such as the one in Georgia, in ways that reflect U.S. interests remains an element of uncertainty in international politics. In the meantime, in Asia Pacific the Obama Administration will likely monitor the situation for some time before commencing work by taking advantage of occasions such as the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference scheduled for late 2009. Building relationships of trust with the Obama Administration by that time will be a priority issue for Japan's immediate U.S. policies.

November 25, 2008

>> Original text in Japanese

November 25, 2008