The Meaning of Barack Obama in World Politics

Published on 3rd November 2015

Ben Carson     Photo courtesy
When Barack Obama was elected President of the Harvard Law Review in 1991, the news reverberated across the United States. It had never happened before that an African-American could be elected to that venerable position. It was equivalent to being elected as a President of the United States in the parlance of legal education. This news was so huge that it reached some of us in Canada and I reported on it in my book Thoughts Are Free: Prison Experience and Reflections on Law and Politics in General (1992). It was such an achievement that the New York Times and Los Angeles Times and many other newspapers carried feature articles on it and Obama got a huge grant to write his story as to how he achieved this feat.

Instead of writing a book about this singular experience, Obama decided to start a journey of discovery by writing about his family history, his political maturation and the racial political-economy of the United States. The book Dreams From My Father, was not sexy enough and it lay dormant until a decade later when he decided to run for the Presidency of the United States and by that time he had also written a companion book entitled, The Audacity of Hope.

What Obama then achieved has no descriptive word to describe it: unprecedented (such a cliché), tsunami (too local to one area of the world); gargantuan (very rarely used word); epoch-making (Obama’s legacy will last forever like that of Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, and other great leaders); historical (over-used); Seismic( maybe); paradigmatic (I like this one as long as we add other verbs or nouns to capture the) astronomical (yes I found it) impact his election as the first African-American President of the United States had on world politics, let alone American politics.

This is merely a short article so I will not launch into a summary of Obama’s meaning to world politics, except to high-light salient areas that have received less coverage in the media.

It is my thesis that Presidential candidate Ben Carson's good performance in the polls is attributable to the Obama factor. The republicans could never have been giving Carson the current huge numbers if Obama had not existed as President of the United States. They look at the Obama election and how well he has done despite the republican disruptions, and they figure if a Black man can be elected and run the country so well, a Black man from the Republican Party could do well as well, that the man could be elected. There are mainstream white men and a white woman running as well, like Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and others but Carson is ahead of them. Given the historic reactionary policies of the Republican Party, Carson should not be where he is. But Obama has trail-blazed, therefore re-engineering the politics of the Republican Party. This is no mean affect and effect in American politics. And no one is talking about it.

Obama is the first American President in the history of America and Africa, to call for and actually organize an American-African summit in Washington, DC and the first American president to organize an economic conference in Africa (Nairobi, Kenya) and also the first American President to address the gathering of African heads of state at the African Union (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia). Obama has opened an economic and political channel to the white house and it is for the Africans and other leaders to exploit the avenue. Obama has slightly over a year to remain as President, it is for the Africans to utilize that platform that he has created. This is a fundamental shift in American-African relations, no matter how you slice it. America of course is protecting its interests by reaching out to Africa. However, Africa must know its interests and project it across. It is not a one-way process. But this enablement is unprecedented.

In 1974, Fidel Castro presciently predicted that the United States of America, will reorient its policies and politics towards Cuba once there is an African-American President in the white house and there is a Pope in Rome from South America. He was speaking with tongue-in-cheek as it were. No one in 1974, let alone in 2008 thought that these two phenomena would happen in our life-times.  These two have happened and so has the rapproachment between Cuba and the United States, the key being the presence of Obama in the White House. The reconciliation between Cuba and the United States is historic and hopefully Cuba’s economic and cultural potential will develop to unprecedented heights as a result. War could have broken out in the past and  future between these two countries but this thawing of relations bodes well for peace.

It is also inconceivable that some kind of reconciliation would have happened between the United States and Iran, without the Obama presence. Further, war in Iraq and Afghanistan would have escalated and continued if Obama did not come on the scene to abate the conflict. I don’t see a republican president scaling back on those conflicts. Republicans survive on war and antagonizing other nations. Any other democratic president other than Obama would have been too weak to resist the temptation of flexing their muscles and not to be seen to be too weak on foreign affairs.

By Munyonzwe Hamalengwa, PhD

Dr. Hamalengwa’s latest book is entitled, Getting Away with Impunity: International Criminal Law and South African Apartheid Criminals.(2015).

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