Barack Obama, the Next Globalization President?
Without mentioning a single other country by name, President Barack Obama just devoted much of his second inaugural address to foreign policy. And I don't mean the old cliche that the U.S. must be strong at home if it is to be strong overseas. I mean instead the G-word, globalization, which Obama wisely refrained from using given all the flat-earthed Friedmanisms it conjures up.
The crux of Obama's argument lay in his assertion that "we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention." What's needed, he goes on to say, is to strengthen the rules and investments that will enable Americans to compete without entering into an economic race to the bottom. That requires a collective response, both nationally and internationally. Many of the hot-button issues that he goes on to address -- inequality, climate change, energy supplies, immigration, human rights -- are issues that no nation can solve on its own. Witness Obama's channeling of Martin Luther King, Jr. in his statement that "our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth." How's that for expansive?
True, this was not a speech addressed to the world, which has had four years to get used to Obama (and vice versa). Nothing we heard today from the Mall suggested a coming change in the tone or method the president brings to his foreign policy dealings. And these have already come a long way from the exuberant, if not arrogant, optimism of his first inaugural, when he declared "to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and we are ready to lead once more." That rings a little different to Pakistanis or Yemenis when there's the high-pitched whine of a drone in the background.
Obama also made a staunch defense of engagement, and of institutions and alliances -- all hallmarks of the last globalization president, Bill Clinton. There's no doubt that Obama will be focusing primarily on the stiff political challenges he faces at home. But many of the concrete results he seeks will be essential to maintaining U.S. competitiveness and global leadership. In fact, I'd even argue that in some ways Obama is building his own version of Clinton's "Bridge to the 21st Century." Thankfully, though, he's rhetorically inclined to do so at much shorter length.
(James Gibney is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)