In Whose Shoes Is Obama Standing?

Will Barack Obama be able to overturn the old framework of American Exceptionalism from its foreign policy to lay foundations for a more equitable relationship with the world?

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama welcoming Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and wife Gursharan Kaur to the White House in November 2009. Jason Reed / REUTERS
01 November, 2010

FOR MOST AMERICAN LIBERAL INTELLECTUALS, the astonishing election of a black man to the nation’s highest office provided the main narrative needed to understand Barack Obama. The president was defined by his race—and the president’s race, in turn, defined a new moment in American history.

Beautiful metaphors were used to describe Obama’s ascent. Cassandra Butts, Obama’s classmate at Harvard Law School and a longtime friend, called him “a translator”— someone who could interpret the black experience for white Americans, and the white for black Americans, in the process cultivating a constituency sizable enough to elect a president.

In similar terms, the black politican and civil rights leader John Lewis—who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr—saw Obama as the culmination of the struggle for civil rights. The new president, Lewis said, “is what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma,” where civil rights activists were beaten by Alabama police during a march in 1965. And David Remnick, the New Yorker editor, borrowed Lewis’ metaphor for the title of his epic biography on Obama: The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama.

Beyond the historic event of his election, Obama has pursued an ambitious agenda during his two years in office: he has passed a national healthcare bill, presided over a massive economic-stimulus programme, initiated financial reforms, established a commission to police securities fraud, and begun to bring back troops from Iraq (though he has sent 30,000 more to Afghanistan). In all these areas, of course, there is scope to do much more: Obama’s critics on the Left have insisted on this point, while his enemies on the Right have been outraged by what he’s already accomplished. But it’s clear that he has worked to address some of the more serious issues facing the United States today.

As Obama makes his first state visit to India this month, it seems appropriate to question whether the man whose election inspired so much hope outside the United States can truly recalibrate America’s relations with the rest of the world. Since the time of Harry Truman, who presided over the end of World War II, presidents have been guided by the idea of American Exceptionalism—the idea, diffuse but powerful, that America alone is destined to lead the world. In matters of foreign affairs, this exceptionalist doctrine has given the United States a faith in its own providential chosen-ness, and a sense that it need not always play by the rules that bind other states.

Today, the era in which America’s status as the world’s sole superpower could not be challenged looks to be drawing to an end; can Obama again serve as a bridge, this time between Washington and the rest of the world? Or will the persistence of the exceptionalist idea, and its sense that the United States stands above and apart from its peers, make Obama little different from the 43 white faces who occupied the Oval Office before him?

Those of us who have grown up and live in the developing world—especially in countries that did not take the American side during the Cold War—hardly need reminders of how the United States has previously chosen to flex its superpower muscles. India, whose stance of non-alignment displeased Washington, suffered under economic sanctions for much of the 1970s and again between 1998 and 2001; during the 1950s and 60s, India faced hurdles in its access to international trade, and it still suffers from double-standards in America’s interpretation of trade laws.

Such are the dividends of American Exceptionalism, which offers some explanation to those of us, elsewhere in the world, who wonder why American politicians often act as if their country can do as it likes, while anyone who wants to do business with the United States must conduct it exclusively on America’s terms. In the case of India, there are more than a few examples of such American high-handedness, as negotiations between the two countries have rarely proceeded from an equal footing.

Consider, as an example, the case of agriculture, where the US and India still have considerable disagreements. After seven ministerial rounds, the WTO-mediated global trade talks collapsed in 2008. The US was not willing to reduce the subsidies it had been giving away to American farmers, which in India’s opinion “risked the livelihood of millions of farmers” in this country.

For decades and decades, the United States had consistently pressured India to end its own farm subsidies—one item on the menu of free-market economic liberalisation and deregulation known as the Washington Consensus. While the US insisted that other countries remove subsidies, it continued to provide lavish support to its own farmers: in 2007, the year before the crucial WTO talks, the US Congress passed a farm bill that included subsidies worth 12.6 trillion rupees. And in 2008, in a rare assertion of power, the Indian-led block of 100 countries walked out from the WTO talks, accusing the United States of “sacrificing the world’s poor for the big commercial interests.”

Agriculture in the United States looks very different from India: the mythical small farmer is nearly extinct, and farms today are large commercial operations, many of them owned by enormous corporations, and highly mechanised and automated. In India, of course, the picture could not be more different: farming is predominated by small landholders, it is highly labour-intensive, and its crop yields are low compared to the US. Less than three percent of Americans are dependent on agriculture to make a living; in India that figure is more than 60 percent, comprising subsistence farmers and farm labourers, whose only security comes from the land they till.

The playing field between Indian and American farms, therefore, has never been a level one—but the American subsidies make it massively unequal. Look at just one crop, cotton: India is the world’s second-largest cotton producer, and the US is number three. Cultivation in India is spread across ten states, and more than 15 million Indian farmers grow cotton; the comparable number for the US is only 25,000, concentrated in the American south. The Indian government offers hardly any support to its cotton farmers, while American cotton farms receive an average equivalent of 5 million rupees in annual subsidies. Cotton farmers from Vidarbha and Telangana made national news here recently, but not for their prosperity. A suicide epidemic broke out among their ranks, as they found themselves crippled with debts that ranged from 5,000 to 50,000 rupees. One American farmer’s annual subsidy, in other words, could have saved 100 or 1,000 lives in Vidarbha.

Invoking the same feeling of unfairness, the leader of a little known West African country, Burkina Faso, sounded the alarm bells recently that his country’s collapsing cotton sector is bringing down the nation’s economy. He was very angry at the exceptions US takes from the WTO regulations.

Being protective about one’s own people is fine. But in that case, from India to Burkina Faso, you should let protectionism rule trade. But if you drive the whole world towards laissez-faire, then follow the rules.

Exceptionalism has been a bipartisan constant in American politics for most of the 20th century, and no political party has a monopoly on faith in the nation’s uniqueness. It was a Democratic congressman, Colin Peterson, who boldly proclaimed during the debate over the subsidies in the 2008 Farm Bill: “I want to write a Farm Bill that’s good for (American) agriculture. If somebody wants to sue us (at the WTO), we’ve got a lot of lawyers in Washington.”

The same is the case with Kyoto Protocol. There was a big opportunity in 1997 if the US had kept its word and reduced carbon emissions. But by 2009 Copenhagen, the world became multi-polar, and countries like India and China became more assertive, by the might of their growth stories. An attitude of “Americans exempted themselves all these years, so why can’t we do what they did once?” is heard more often in the bilateral talks from more and more countries in the areas of trade, rights, environment, and security and policing. But breaking laws, non-compliance, and manipulation aren’t doing any good from whoever it comes. Someone somewhere is suffering unduly because of you protecting the commercial interest of a powerful few in your country.

Now, can Barack Obama, the bridge in many ways within the US, move away from the exceptionalist worldview and make his country interact with the world differently? He has the potential at least. The will he’s shown in withdrawing the troops from Iraq exemplifies that.

However, the Tea Party movement—the new conservative drive that has vouched to undo what Obama is doing—seems to be gaining ground. If the revisionist slogans such as ‘we want our country back,’ end up derailing the promised ‘change,’ then it’s bad news for the US and the world.

Sensitive sectors like agriculture cannot be defined the world over by a few family-owned, agri-business companies such as Dunavant and Cargill, and their lobbyists in K Street.

Whether Obama charms India with his rockstar aura is not the question. He may well do so. But if he fails to negotiate with India—and the rest of the world—from a more equitable position, setting aside the baggage of American Exceptionalism, then the world will have no choice but to measure him against what he often decried during his own presidential campaign: “The inability of our leaders to stand in other folks’ shoes.”