THERE is no doubt Barack Obama’s election as the next president of the US would have an impact on how many in the rest of the world think about the sole superpower. Obama represents a new generation of leadership, and he sounds and looks very different from his predecessors.
Here in Russia, as in most places I have visited recently, Obama’s appearance — he would be the first black leader of any world power — is getting the most attention. His victory would mark the end of the view of the US still promoted by many in Russia, a line used by the Soviets to counter accusations of repression: “Ah, but in the US they lynch negroes.” It is practically conventional wisdom, and not just in Russia, that in the US the rich WASPs and Jews exploit the poor blacks and Latinos. If Obama wins, it will be as if suddenly everyone can see the world is undeniably round.
Unfortunately, most would rather talk about what this is likely to mean for race relations in the US instead of confronting the racism and xenophobia in our own nations. But the only thing that will matter, and surprisingly soon, is whether Obama acts differently. The window of opportunity for Obama to take advantage of the world’s curiosity and goodwill will be small. The crises we face are too big; the next US president will not enjoy much of a grace period.
Obama would be halfway there simply by virtue of not being George W. Bush who, rightly in some cases and wrongly in others, has come to symbolise every problem anyone has ever had with the US, Americans and US power abroad.
Bush is practically a bouquet of the classic American stereotypes, the ones so easy to hate: rich, inarticulate, uninterested in the world, stridently religious and hasty to act. (And the images of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina seemingly exemplified the stereotype of Americans as racists and were viewed largely without surprise abroad. Of course they wouldn’t rescue poor black people.) Obama would explode these stereotypes. But the world’s multitude of grievances against the Bush administration quickly would be laid on Obama’s doorstep if he were to fail to back up his inspiring rhetoric with decisive action.
He could get off to a good start by making it clear he does not consider the people of Russia to be the enemy of the US. As in most authoritarian states, the Putin regime does not represent most of its citizens. Kremlin propaganda works hard to present the US as Russia’s adversary. Obama could strike a blow against that image by speaking out against dictatorial leaders in Russia and across the world.
Then those words must be quickly followed up with deeds.
Garry Kasparov, a leader of The Other Russia coalition (theotherrussia.org), is a former world chess champion and lives in Moscow and St Petersburg.
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