Obama and the art of openness

Since January I have gained a newfound respect for telemarketers. It took me only a short time making calls for the Obama campaign to realize that Americans show their worst side when talking with strangers on the phone. As Election Day moved closer in highly contested states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, voters were being called at all hours of the day from different campaigns. Because of the faceless nature of phone banking, voters were fine with hanging up or venting their frustrations to the volunteers. But when I was on foot as a volunteer going door to door, I never had a voter say a mean word or slam a door. This principle runs true off the campaign trail: it is harder to hate a person than an idea.

From that I ask the question, how would the United States’s international power be negatively affected by having leaders who are open to talking with other nations, both friend or foe? For the current administration, it could be that communication is seen as an international bargaining chip. But, following the America’s great foresight and success in Iraq, I would have predicted that all of the candidates in the current race for president would be tripping over each other to suggest a much more open dialogue with enemy nations. John McCain continues to perpetuate the Bush doctrine of believing our international dilemma comes from the dangers of our world. For him, it would be naive to meet with the leaders of Cuba, Iran and Venezuela without requiring them to meet some preconditions. Senator Clinton, although very much opposed to the war in Iraq, has likewise supported the need for preconditions in meeting with enemy nations. Senator Obama has been the only candidate, outside of perhaps long shot Democrat Dennis Kucinich, who has agreed to talk to all international leaders without preconditions.

The U.S. needs Senator Obama simply because he is willing to take the first step and meet with our enemies. First, discussions will illuminate where each nation stands and what each demands of the other. The U.S. will be able to let it be known to enemy nations exactly what it expects of them, and what they will receive in return. I do not expect that communication will solve all of the U.S.’s international tensions (for instance, Kim Jong-il will still be seen as crazy). However, more open communication will likely make it more difficult for U.S. leaders and citizens to see opposing nations’ leaders as one-dimensionally evil, the way we do today.

The second benefit that would come from following Obama’s open communication policy would be international brownie points, or soft power. The truth in American hegemony is that even as nations criticize the U.S. for going into Iraq, most of them would rush back to its side if it faced a serious threat. But this only works in extreme cases. To get its way in economic deals and regional conflicts the U.S. needs to build up its standing in international favor. By willing to reach out to difficult leaders, Obama would help bolster the U.S.’s image as a force of good in international politics. Soft power plays a much larger role in the success of a government in the age of globalization than the Bush administration gives it credit. I am not saying that soft power is the solution to everything, but, in the situation that the U.S. is in now, it needs Obama to send forth open delegations and to reestablish the soft power arsenal that our nation has long since abandoned.

Obama’s plan has more to it than just the reform of American foreign policy; it implies that a re-assessment is in order for how we as a people deal with and perceive of other nations. In the case of states like Iran, North Korea and Cuba we have seen that hard-handed solutions are not effective and can often make dangerous situations more so rather than less. Only through examining and understanding foreign perspectives – and by “understanding” I do not mean “agreeing with” – can we achieve positive solutions.

Although Pennsylvania, Indiana and North Carolina still have their democratic primaries to go, the race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama is over. That is unless you hold the false impression that a large majority of the super delegates will vote against the will of the people on convention night. The race that we now look forward to is that between McCain and Obama. This gives us two choices in the future of U.S. foreign policy: we can either count on the “silent treatment” (or our military action) that we have used in trying to change Cuba for more than forty years, or we could knock on doors and canvas the neighborhood. We could take a new approach that tests the waters of enemy nations by taking the first step toward diplomacy ourselves. This is a policy that Americans and the world will be better for.

Frank Zimmerman ’10 is from Alexandria, Va., and lives in Mark Hopkins.