Tuesday, March 17, 2009

US Global Pre-eminence

Obama and emerging American values

From The Statesman
IN every country there is always some or the other cultural struggle going on. When the struggle becomes too fierce to be contained in civil discourse, it becomes a cultural war that is fought in the media, legislature, or even in the streets. Jihad is essentially a cultural struggle over the interpretation of what Islam means; and when some extremists believe in the absoluteness of their interpretation, they think it is righteous to use violence to impose their meaning on others. But this is not limited to Islam. Culture-driven sporadic violence occurred during Valentine’s Day in India, for example.

For a long time a cultural war has been going on in the USA over gay marriages, abortion rights and stem cell research. Americans are no less fierce in their views than are Islamists, except that they use the ballot box rather than the gun in prevailing over their opponents. Most Americans, for example, believe in the traditional concept of marriage, that it should be a union between a man and a woman; but at the same time they condemn discrimination against gay couples, according to several polls. Some states, such as my home state Vermont, have enacted civil union laws that give same sex couples the same rights as heterosexual married couples enjoy, for example, health insurance benefits.

Massachusetts has made gay marriages legal. The gay marriage battle is being fought in every state but in the course of time most states would recognise some form of civil union. The 14th Amendment’s equal protection and due process clause that was originally meant to give equal rights to blacks after the Civil War is being invoked by gay rights advocates.

Last November, Californians passed Preposition 8 that banned gay marriages, which is now being challenged in the California Supreme Court. President Barack Obama has an open mind on gay marriages, which means he will go with the flow. As a presidential candidate he promised to fight hard for equal rights for gay couples in civil unions but now, as the President, he is confronted with the 1996 Defence of Marriage Act that extends health insurance benefits only to heterosexual spouses of federal employees. And let’s recall: the invocation at the January 20 presidential inauguration for Mr Obama was delivered by the anti-gay evangelist Reverend Rick Warren. The Obama big-tent politics accommodates so many contradictions.

Though Mr Obama, like most Americans, seems to be conflicted over the equal rights protection, including the right to marry for the gay community, he is more certain about abortion rights and life-enhancing embryonic stem cell research. Deep divisions no doubt continue about when life begins and the rights of the unborn from the petri dish to the womb; nonetheless the abortion rights of American women (vide Roe v. Wade decision) are not only intact but Mr Obama has struck down the Bush Administration rule which prohibited US money from being used to fund international family planning clinics that promote and offer abortion, provide counselling or referrals about abortion services. The right to life movement nonetheless continues to be very strong in the USA but its proponents have to use some other methods of persuasion rather than depend upon the power of the White House.

Although the controversy over embryonic stem cell research, which necessitates the destruction of human embryos but holds great promises for fighting diseases, continues more or less, Mr Obama has reversed George W Bush’s policy and removed all restrictions on the use of federal money for research using embryonic stem cells. Of course, when the health care benefits arising from embryonic stem cell research are commercially exploited by the biotech and pharmaceutical industry, even the most social conservative diehard pro-lifers would pipe down their shrill criticism. Embryonic stem cell research would eventually revolutionise healthcare and disease management and has an immense potential for the pharmaceutical industry. To some extent, the marketplace drives American values, which is perhaps true of other societies also.

Americans are absolutely undivided over the value they treasure and esteem the most: the USA’s pre-eminence in the world. Nor have they lost faith in the value of free market capitalism, in spite of the crash of the financial markets. Americans want the whole world be open to them so that they could look at what is going on. Shut doors intimidate Americans. Just consider China-US relations. In spite of its high economic growth and global ambitions, much of China’s foreign exchange reserve ($727.4 billion) found its way into US treasuries. China has no choice but to keep its door ajar. Disputes over trade and Taiwan and Tibet human rights can be managed diplomatically. Last week, the US House of Representatives passed a non-binding resolution asking China to restore to Tibet its human rights. China huffed and puffed and lodged a protest but the USA will not give up its moral right to speak against human rights violation. China will not be able to shut the door on Tibet even if it agrees to buy a trillion dollars more of US treasuries.

Indo-US relations have been growing. The outsourcing of technology jobs has made India a breeding ground for knowledge workers, but at the same time it is a kind of co-dependent relationship that Americans have built up with China. India is now looking for development in biotechnology, auto outsourcing, civilian space programmes and nuclear energy, ambitious plans that would require transfer of advanced technology from the USA. India cannot opt out of this soft power mutually beneficial relationship with the USA. Nor can Mr Obama deviate much from the existing co-dependent relationship, whether it is India or China.

The USA is re-establishing its global pre-eminence through the principle of dominant co-dependency, which no other great power has ever done before. This is the new emerging value in American foreign policy.

(ND Batra teaches communication and diplomacy at Norwich University.)

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