A Revolutionary Reaffirmation
The Election of Barack Obama as U.S. President
by Paul Goble
On-going series: Crisis in the Caucasus - 2008
The Russian / Georgian Conflict and Its Impact on Azerbaijan
This article was written for the Estonian newspaper in Tallinn - Eesti Paevaleht
Published Nov 6, 2008
Twenty-five years ago, when I was working on Baltic affairs at the U.S. Department of State, I would take visiting Soviet scholars to a small restaurant in Rosslyn, across the Potomac River from Washington, DC. called Abdullah's Pizzeria. It was an Italian restaurant owned by a Palestinian Christian Arab where all the waitresses were Vietnamese immigrants and all the cooks were Black Americans.
I would point out to the Soviet visitors that such places - remarkable in the United States only because they are so ordinary, even typical - were one of our greatest strengths and suggest to them that if their country could ever have similar restaurants, it might survive and prosper. But that if it could not manage that, they would have to come to terms with the reality that the Soviet Union would not, indeed could not, survive.
Those long-ago lunches sprung to mind often Tuesday during a date which many people will see as revolutionary but which all should view as a reaffirmation revolutionary because for the first time ever an Black American will be president, an achievement remarkable not only in the United States but even more impressive when one considers the political and social arrangements of other countries. And it's a reaffirmation because Barack Obama's election re-emphasized three important aspects of the American project, each of which will in the coming months and years have dramatic consequences not just for the U.S. but for the world.
(1) First, President-elect Obama's triumph underscores the openness of American society and consequently its ability however far it has wandered from the ideals of the Founding Generation and however many mistakes it has made and let us be honest, will make to right itself. When I was born after World War II, it was illegal in many American states for Black Americans to stay at the same hotels or eat at the same restaurants or marry whites, all restrictions that were both morally and legally wrong.
By the time, I reached adulthood, those were all gone, but remaining prejudices caused most people to believe that we would not see a Black American in the White House anytime soon. And I cannot tell you how proud I am of my countrymen that we have now seen that morally and legally wrong restriction ended and that we have done so without recourse to the kind of violence such radical change often has required elsewhere.
The possibilities for hope that Barack Obama spoke of in his victory speech reside in that openness. And I am convinced that he will be far more concerned with promoting the spread of that openness and that hope to the world by holding up the example of America rather than by using its position as the economically and militarily strongest country on the planet.
(2) Second, President-elect Obama's victory highlights the importance of basic freedoms and competitive elections. No one, not even a man as remarkable as Barack Obama, could have won without those basic freedoms to speak out, to organize, to assemble people, and to compete in elections where the outcome has not been determined by the powerful in advance.
When my wife and I stood in line early Tuesday morning, it was almost a religious experience. At our precinct, there were hundreds of people, rich and poor, black and white, native born and naturalized immigrants, all waiting for the chance to push a button or mark a ballot that they believed would make a difference. I have been voting for almost 40 years, but I have never felt so strongly that we were taking so seriously the words of our Declaration of Independence and Constitution that "all men are created equal" and that there must be "equal justice under law."
What does that mean for American foreign policy in an Obama Administration? Simply this: It means that the United States will look forward rather than backward and will seek to ally itself not so much with those who support Washington on one or another issue but rather with those like Estonia whose people are committed to the values that we share.
(3) And third and this is going to be both the greatest opportunity and could entail the greatest dangers President-elect Obama's win is going to reaffirm in the minds of many Americans a profound belief that we are truly an exceptional nation, a bright shining city on the hill, the last best hope of mankind. In recent years and for me this period extends back to the time since 1991 that we had lost our way.
All too often during that time, we have acted as if we were a country like any other. That led us to engage in the kind of Realpolitik that is alien to our nature, depending on our military and economic strength rather than relying on the power of the ideals enshrined in our basic documents and, as could be seen in the faces of those who greeted Barak Obama's remarkable victory, in the hearts of Americans.
That, too, points to a shift in American foreign policy away from the Congress of Vienna mentality that has dominated Washington in recent years where big countries make deals and small countries suffer toward a policy in which the rights of all, be they small or large, countries or minorities, will be, indeed must be respected.
Carrying out that kind of policy won't be easy. There is always the risk that it could become a crusade, leading the U.S. to be overextended and thus open to challenge. But given what Barack Obama has said, his own obvious intelligence and his willingness to surround himself with those who believe in ideas rather than in force alone, there is new hope in America and consequently, there should be new hope in countries like Estonia from America's commitment to its own values.
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