We have reached the key moment of the election day and it will be a transformational moment for transatlantic politics. After 8 years of divisions and recriminations between the US and Europe but also within Europe an Obama victory will not only reopen a phase of consultations and respect. It will also open a new era because Obama means a break in global politics and because the world has changed a lot and will change a lot over the next 4 years.It does not mean that the change will be profound and immediate. Democratic politics is more about an accumulation of small steps than a radical shift. Obama is a cautious politician and he knows that in the current context of financial turbulences and human insecurity it will be essential to be cool.
It does not mean either that the relationship will be easy. Some conservative European governments would have preferred (at least until Sarah Palin’s nomination) John McCain, either because he is a “known quantity” in Atlantic circles or because they fear that Obama will put Europe on the defensive in terms of world soft power and of political symbols of modernity.
Leftwing groups in Europe will be divided too. The ultra-left has been heavily insisting that Obama will not change anything, that he is just a nicer-looking U.S. imperialist. Their fear is that it will be a lot more difficult to caricature the U.S. with a coloured man at the white House. Bush was such an easy target.
The social-democrats will be disappointed unless Barack Obama, like F.D. Roosevelt, is forced to save “capitalism against the capitalists’recklessness”” (which is the New dealers’ and social democrats’major contribution to the history of social justice) and adopts strong policies drawn from the conventional “liberal” agenda.
However Obama is anchored in the center of the U.S. “reasonable Establishment” and at this stage he is closer to Dominique Strauss-Kahn than to European trade unionists. Although the test of his “liberalism” will be his deep conviction that America needs more justice and fairness he will have to be innovative rather than repeating old recipes that, although well-intentioned, might not apply to the current crisis.
There is a window of opportunity, though, for a more progressive Atlantic agenda. The economic context pushes for initiatives that are at the same time daring and cautious. The war in Iraq and Afghanistan call for judgment and fortitude.
Foreign policy however will be a symbolic area where a new U.S. administration will be able, if it really so desires, to make a difference quickly. A few days ago the leading U.S. human rights organisation Human Rights Watch ( http://www.hrw.org/english/docs/2008/10/29/usdom20099_txt.htm )published its “agenda for the new administration”, highlighting “four crucial initiatives that the new president should take shortly after assuming office”.
Ensure that U.S. counterterrorism efforts comply with international human rights and humanitarian law.
Make human rights a central pillar of.U.S. foreign policy
Rejoin the international human rights community
Demonstrate leadership on human rights issues at home.
In other words, close down Guantanamo, stop using and justifying torture, go back to the traditions of Eleanor Roosevelt and of so many other leading U.S. politicians, intellectuals and activists that were an inspiration for the rest of the world in the field of human dignity.
This human rights agenda should be addressed to the European Union as well, helping to build a new transatlantic consensus based on the respect and promotion of human rights. The ball will fall in Europe’s garden soon and it will be the responsibility of European progressives, liberals and “enlightened” conservatives (like Angela Merkel) to pick it up and aim it straight at Europe’s “useful or friendly dictators” (Uzbekistan, Gabon, Tunisia, etc), the Fortress Europe die-hards and the neo-populists (Berlusconi) and real fascists (Austria’s extreme right).
Let us hope that a Barack Obama victory will force everyone in the U.S. and Europe to rethink the foundations of democratic power. Ethics, respect for human rights, should not be seen as constraints on democracies, as the Bush-Cheney administration saw it, but as the best levers of reasonable and inspirational leadership.