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.