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What Obama Means for... America's Global Image

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By Desmond Tutu
Sunday, November 9, 2008

CAPE TOWN I am rubbing my eyes in disbelief and wonder. It can't be true that Barack Obama, the son of a Kenyan, is the next president of the United States.

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But it is true, exhilaratingly true. An unbelievable turnaround. I want to jump and dance and shout, as I did after voting for the first time in my native South Africa on April 27, 1994.

We owe our glorious victory over the awfulness of apartheid in South Africa in large part to the support we received from the international community, including the United States, and we will always be deeply grateful. But for those of us who have looked to America for inspiration as we struggled for democracy and human rights, these past seven years have been lean ones.

A few days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, we had our first shock, hearing your president respond not with the statesmanlike demeanor we had come to expect from a U.S. head of state but like a Western gunslinger. Later, it seemed that much of American society was following his lead.

When war began, first in Afghanistan and not long after in Iraq, we read allegations of prisoner abuse at Bagram air base in Afghanistan and of rendition to countries notorious for practicing torture. We saw the horrific images from Abu Ghraib and learned of gruesome acts performed in the name of gathering information. Sometimes the torture itself was couched in the government's euphemisms -- calling waterboarding an "interrogation technique."

To the outgoing administration's record on torture we must add a string of other policies that have damaged the standing of the United States in the world: its hostility to the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gases; its refusal to assent to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, establishing the ICC's role in prosecuting war crimes; its restrictions on the use of U.S. funding to fight AIDS; and the arrogant unilateralism it has employed in declaring to be enemies any countries it deemed "against us" because they were not "for us."

The Bush administration has riled people everywhere. Its bully-boy attitude has sadly polarized our world.

Against all this, the election of Barack Obama has turned America's image on its head. My wife was crying with incredulity and joy as we watched a broadcast of the celebrations in Chicago. A newspaper here ran a picture of Obama from an earlier trip to one of our townships, where he was mobbed by youngsters. It was tacitly saying that we are proud he once visited us.

Today Africans walk taller than they did a week ago -- just as they did when Nelson Mandela became South Africa's first black president in 1994. Not only Africans, but people everywhere who have been the victims of discrimination at the hands of white Westerners, have a new pride in who they are. If a dark-skinned person can become the leader of the world's most powerful nation, what is to stop children everywhere from aiming for the stars? The fact that Obama's Kenyan grandfather was a convert to Islam may -- shamefully -- have been controversial in parts of the United States, but elsewhere in the world, Obama's multi-faith heritage is an inspiration.

And the president-elect has one additional key quality: He is not George W. Bush.

Because the Bush years have been disastrous for other parts of the world in many ways, Obama's victory dramatizes the self-correcting mechanism that epitomizes American democracy. Elsewhere, oppressors, tyrants and their lapdogs can say what they like, and they stay put, for the most part. Ordinary citizens living in undemocratic societies are not fools; they may not always agree with U.S. foreign policy, but they can see and register the difference between the United States, where people can kick an unpopular political party out, and their own countries.

In the midst of this celebration, however, a word of caution is appropriate. In the first days after 9/11, the United States had the world's sympathy, an unprecedented wave of it. President Bush squandered it. Obama could squander the goodwill that his election has generated if he does not move quickly and decisively on the international front.

On human rights, President Obama needs to signal the changes his administration will bring by speedily taking a few high-profile symbolic actions. One might be to close that abomination, the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. Another could be immediate replacement of guidelines on the treatment of detainees, thus putting the United States back in the mainstream of international humanitarian law. He could launch a comprehensive inquiry into who authorized torture and when. And it would be wonderful if, on behalf of the nation, he would apologize to the world, and especially the Iraqis, for an invasion that I believe has turned out to be an unmitigated disaster.

On humanitarian issues, he will be hard-pressed in the ongoing global financial crisis to match the current administration's generally admirable record. President Bush has succeeded in working with Congress to devote unprecedented amounts of money to fighting malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. But if the United States is to show that it places as much value on a human life in Africa as on one in the United States, Obama actually has to improve on Bush's achievements.

Obama's election has given Americans the message that hope is viable, that change is really possible. He galvanized huge numbers of his compatriots across the board, particularly young people who had become disillusioned with politics. He drew huge numbers of volunteers and raised record amounts of money, not just in donations from the wealthy but in relatively small amounts from many so-called ordinary people. Judging by the reception he received in Berlin earlier this year, he has given the world similar hope.

The renowned African scholar Ali Mazrui has pointed out that Obama could never have gotten as far as he has without an exceptional level of trust on the part of white Americans. In this, his achievement is similar to what Nelson Mandela had achieved by the end of his presidency; Mandela's party may never have drawn a majority of white votes, but he has come to be revered by white as well as black South Africans as the founding father of our democracy.

Mazrui likens Obama to Mandela in other ways, saying that both men share a readiness to forgive and show "a remarkable capacity to transcend historical racial divides." Both, Mazrui says, are "potential icons of a post-racial age which is unfolding before our eyes."

Such a post-racial age for me has the characteristics of a rainbow. We are in a different time now than when I first spoke of a rainbow nation, describing the South Africa that Mandela led for the first time in 1994. But my vision for such a place remains. It is a place where people of each race and cultural group exhibit their own unique identity, their own distinct attributes, but where the beauty of the whole gloriously exceeds the sum of its parts.

Obama is the son of a Kenyan man and a Kansan woman. He spoke movingly about his background during his long campaign. Now he's the president-elect. His triumph can help the world reach the point where we realize that we are all caught up in a delicate network of interdependence, unable to celebrate fully our own heritage and place in the world, unable to realize our full potential as human beings, unless everyone else, everywhere else, can do the same.

mpilo@iafrica.com

Desmond Tutu is the Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984.


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