Obama on Globalization

barack obama sweatshop

Before reading Dreams From My Father, I knew that Barack Obama had a Kenyan father and an American mother, and had assumed from that that he would have thought out issues of international relations in greater depth than many American politicians. Reading his book, I was pleasantly surprised. Prior to his multiple trips to Kenya, Obama actually spent about three years living in Indonesia as a child. His time in Jakarta has, at least from some of the thoughts he included, given him a level of healthy skepticism regarding globalization and economic development. Also, for what it’s worth, his degree from Columbia was in international relations.

Based on his experience and study, I think Obama is at least more likely to understand the complexity of international economic developments. The greater question is whether a nuanced view of the effects of particular U.S. foreign policy decisions would really lead to substantively better decisions when he’s placed in a position where the accepted thing to do is to promote U.S. interests (i.e., the presidency, or the U.S. Senate).

His strong support for ethanol energy leads my thoughts in two diverging directions. One thought is that Obama recognizes our dependency on foreign oil and knows how a craving for natural resources can often overcome the best of ideological intentions in foreign policy (note our alliance with Saudi Arabia, or interventions in Ecuador). However, the stronger point that this support makes to me is less optimistic: Obama represents a state with heavy agricultural interests, and pressing for subsidies for ethanol-related agriculture seems to be an indication of self-interest for his district, the simple, unexceptional role for a politician in a regionally-based representative democracy.

Of course, politicians are most likely to act with speed and assurance when ideological/ moral and economic/ political incentives coincide. (This is the basis for making ‘good’ foreign policy decisions espoused by Robert Kaplan, author of Balkan Ghosts and other books: we should intervene when our moral and economic interests provide an unavoidable synergy).

In short, I need to read more of what Obama’s written and said on farm subsidies in relation to international development to see if his views have conveniently shifted to a more pro-U.S.-agriculture stance with his rise to political power.

Here’s what he says about economic modernization/globalization as it affects Indonesian workers:

I tried to imagine the Indonesian workers who were now making their way to the sorts of factories that had once sat along the banks of the Calumet River [in south Chicago], joining the ranks of wage labor to assemble the radios and sneakers that sold on Michigan Avenue. I imagined those same Indonesian workers ten, twenty years from now, when their factories would have closed down, a consequence of new technology or lower wages in some other part of the globe. And then the bitter discovery that their markets have vanished; that they no longer remember how to weave their own baskets or carve their own furniture or grow their own food; that even if they remember such craft, the forests that gave them wood are now owned by timber interests, the baskets they once wove have been replaced by more durable plastics. The very existence of the factories, the timber interests, the plastics manufacturer, will have rendered their culture obsolete; the values of hard work and individual initiative turnout to have depended on a system of belief that’s been scrambled by migration and urbanization and imported TV reruns. Some of them would prosper in this new order. Others would move to America. And the others, the millions left behind in Djakarta, or Lagos, or the West Bank, they would settle into their own Altgeld Gardens [the projects where Obama worked], into a deeper despair.

His other, newer book, The Audacity of Hope, has at least one section about foreign policy (I noticed while browsing in a bookstore) so I guess that’ll have to go on the reading list as well.

7 Responses to Obama on Globalization

  1. I think Kenya and other African countries could do with a Chinese-style “pillage and rape of our culture and economic systems”. Obama’s rendition of the “plight” of the Indonesian workers fails to acknowledge an important fact. These peoples traditional, cultural and economic systems have proven unable to deliver a modern lifestyle for them. Is it his understanding that only Americans and Europeans desire to travel, to be entertained and to enjoy a privileged lifestyle?

    Idealizing the lifestyles of the poor (i.e. they are better off staying on their farms, whiling away the hours carving their own furniture and growing their own food) is a pretext employed by those who have the most to fear from globalisation. And that’s not the poor, who are suffering anyway, but those who have benefited from the skewed nature of global trade, America and Western Europe. I am yet to hear Obama urging the residents of Manhattan to settle the prairies, weave baskets and grow their own food.

  2. Larry Jennings says:

    The problems inherent in globalization will soon be approached by levelization of all world economies. By this, I mean a redistribution of all the wealth and resources to distribute everything evenly. You know, socialism. It is obvious to anyone that this is the intent of globalization. In every socialist system there remains a wealthy elite in control. I suppose that this is all just part of some vast economic redistribution of spoils being played out on a global scale?

    It is up to the American voter to realize the dangers of globalization. The danger of giving up their sovereignty and autonomy for economic reasons, Or for reasons of peace at any cost. Socialism as a form of appeasement is unacceptable for the human race in general and for Americans in particular. Obama hasn’t asked Manhattanites to settle the praries yet, but then Stalin didn’t murder all the generals in his army until after he had seized power.

  3. Larry,
    Your interpretation of globalisation would make a socialist of Adam Smith. The fact is a fair and open trading system does not seek to redistribute wealth but rather to allocate resources more efficiently. To grow the pie rather than share out a shrinking one. In rejecting it, both you and Obama seem to be in the mold of the very mercantilists Smith was opposed to.

  4. Dimitri says:

    Globalization is such a complicated issue its not even funny. If anything its widening the gap between rich and poor. FDI is still heavily concentrated in the developed nations, as are world exports and imports. However, developing world countries, specifically the southeast asian ones, are increasing their market share of imports and FDI, from about 1/4 in 1960 to 1/3 today. Still, this only marks an increased discrepancy among developing nations, i.e. South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong, China are all improving their quality of life, while Africa is still in the shithole (many sub-saharan african nations have actually had decreases in real dollars in terms of gdp since the 1960s). Hardly a ‘leveling of the playing field,” it may imporve conditions for newly industrialized nations, but it also widens the gap between the rich and poor countries.

    Also, fair and open policies are two different things. Open would mean Transnational corporations can take advantage of less militant labor forces and lower wage labor in order to vertically disintegrate and more efficiently produce goods. Fair trading policies are meant to make American wage labor more competitive on the global market by increasing wages elsewhere. However, it is this increase in wage labor in other countries that would discourage FDI and would discourage firms from setting up foreign branch plant industry.

    ALSO, a lot of the developing nations have outstanding debts to square. While the US’s debt has just reached 4% of its GDP, indebted countries like Jamaica’s debt are 30-130% of their GDP. This is a cycle we have yet to figure out how to fix, but it is generally agreed that open trade policies make situations in these countries better off, not worse. These three points Ive made are also just the tip of the iceberg. You should take a class on the geography of globalization somewhere (UCLA has a great one), and find out more about the subject if it interests you.

  5. JackHester says:

    I’m with Larry Jennings – at least his last paragraph. Globalism is only partly economic -it’s mostly political and designed to bring down America to africa and indian standards and do away with our sovereignty and standard of living.

    These goals are obama’s too.

    JackHester http://twitter.com/JackHester

  6. Mohan says:

    You are right. Dreams From My Father gives a glimpse into Obama’s perspectives on Globalization that he brings in with the death of experience few American, or for that matter other global leaders have.

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