Our interview with President Rosalyn Higgins of the International Court of Justice
President-Elect Barack Obama and the World
by Brian Risman, Publisher and Founder, The Law Journal UK and Consultant in International Law
"Rosa Parks sat so that Martin Luther King could walk.
King walked so that Obama could run.
Obama ran so that we could fly.”
The above quotation, referring to key moments in the Black fight for equality in America, describes the intensity of the historical moment we have experienced in the monumental Presidential election in the United States.
Why was the election such a watershed?
The United States has been haunted by many demons alongside its greatness of purpose. While the U.S. Constitution's preamble began with 'We the people...', a beautifully radical concept of people power in an era when the divine right of Kings to rule still held sway, the very definition of 'we the people' haunted America. Discrimination not only permeated the land, but was institutionalised in that very Constitution by its creators, many of whom were unrepentant slave owners.
Jim Crow laws, Grandfathering voting clauses, and often fierce violence was used to perpetuate the denial of rights to its citizens, frequently on the basis of colour.
Understanding the depth of the historical racial divisions in America sets the stage for understanding that President-Elect Barack Obama's accomplishment is more than a victory of party. Nor does Obama's victory stand alone -- many important moments preceded last night. The 1954 Supreme Court decision of Brown v Board, which declared school segregation between whites and blacks unconstitutional, was a key moment. As was the appointment, a decade later, of Thurgood Marshall, the victorious lawyer in the Brown case, as the first Black member of the U.S. Supreme Court.
That, of course, is prelude to the events of the 2008 Presidential Election.
First, let me express my congratulations to President-Elect Barack Obama.
Second, I equally congratulate Senator John McCain, the Republican candidate, whose concession speech was one of dignity, befitting the man and war hero.
At the same time, however, Mr. McCain’s choice of Governor Sarah Palin as the Vice-Presidential candidate proved disastrous and raised serious concerns about his judgment as a potential President. The at-first impressive Governor Palin quickly descended into extreme right-wing politics, which while solidifying the Republican core, drove moderate Republicans and Independent voters directly into the arms of Mr. Obama. The Republicans need to seriously consider their positions in the future. Governor Palin's support only for the 'real America' was clearly exclusionary in its nature, and raised serious concerns of suitability to lead all of the people, not just a limited segment of whom she approves.
What I find especially interesting is that Mr. Obama did not win the election as a Black man, or with regard to Black issues per se. The issues that propelled Mr. Obama into the White House were those that a candidate of any colour could emerge victorious. An unpopular war – two of them. A financial collapse. A nation in debt. And, a deeply unpopular incumbent President.
Having said that, the reality is that Mr. Obama won with an overwhelmingly massive Black vote. Whites did not give a majority of their votes to Mr. Obama.
That is why President Bush deserves full credit for releasing his congratulatory message to Mr. Obama. Mr. Bush pointedly started his congratulatory telephone conversation with "Mr. President-Elect...". That salutation sends a message -- Mr. Obama is the President-Elect. That contrasts to the situation in the 1960 election. After that vote, there was a lack of acknowledgment by many Republicans (but not his opponent, Vice-President Richard Nixon) of President-Elect Kennedy's victory. The lack of acceptance of the new President sent a signal that led to great division in the country.
Hence, President Bush set the right tone for the new administration -- and the country -- by acknowledging the victor as President-Elect.
Now, President-Elect Obama has to deal with brutal realities of unpopular wars, economic problems, and his nation hitting a 'financial wall' of debt.
Therefore, the 'Change' that he has promoted in his campaign may be one that his supporters may not have anticipated. Social justice goals may take a back seat to saving the economy, and re-establishing the financial health of his country. Not to mention dealing with two wars and other international threats. There is little doubt that the new President will be tested internationally, both economically and in a geo-political sense.
There have been rumours that in recent weeks Senator Obama was concerned that he had set expectations too high. Indeed, in his acceptance speech in Grant Park in Chicago, he noted that the goals of his administration may not be completed in one term as President. Hence the euphoria of last night may give way to disillusionment and even despair.
That dose of reality will inevitably lead to dissent, and dispute. Unlike in a Parliamentary system, the legislative branch, the Congress (composed of the Senate and House of Representatives) do not feel they need to support an administration of their own party. In fact, they are frequently brawling in public. Hence even if the Democrats would have achieved their goal of 60 Senate seats -- important to them, so that they could cut off Republican dissenting tactics, such as long speeches called filibusters -- it is highly unlikely the Democrats could actually get all 60 of their Senators to vote together.
In fact, last night there was already an element of dissent in the nation. There was a strong sentiment not to give the Democrats their goal of 60 Senators, in order to stop dissent. The people opted for a Democratic President, but at the same time put limits on that party's legislative powers.
Back to dissent. The honeymoon, enhanced by its historical nature, will come to an end for Mr. Obama. People will not approve of his policies and actions. And that is perfectly normal.
What is not perfectly normal is the tendency of Obama supporters to brand any opposition to Obama as evil. No one could accuse Senator McCain of being evil. And, given Mr. Obama's legislative record was among the most liberal in the Senate, it is quite conceivable that there will be opposition to one or more of his policies. His supporters will have to acknowledge that not all opposition is evil, and in fact is very healthy in a democracy. The presence of an opposition keeps a government under (at least) some control. Otherwise, the very goals of Mr. Obama for a more perfect nation will be for naught.
Now to foreign policy. Many people around the world likewise have unrealistic expectations. They view Mr. Obama as someone who will bring a radical change to U.S. policy. The reality is that U.S. interests -- as with any country -- do not change due to changes in leadership.
Economic policies are another matter. The Democrats tend to be more protectionist than the Republicans. Indeed, in the primary elections, both major Democratic candidates, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama, advocated protectionist, anti-free-trade policies. While such statements can be considered political, the presence of a protectionist-leaning Democratic Congress could put pressure on Mr. Obama to take such protectionist measures. Such measures were used in the 1930s, turning a bad recession into the Great Depression which lasted a decade, and was only ended by demand created by World War II. The lesson of the Great Depression was that protectionism is the worst approach to economic problems, and should be avoided.
In conclusion, and as a comedian noted in an election in which a new government took power, “Now you are the one we blame”.
Welcome to the loneliest job in the world. Remember, as President Harry Truman stated, 'the buck stops here' -- that is, the ultimate responsibility is that of the President.
President-Elect Barack Obama, you have made history by winning. Now, you will quickly find that you are part of the history of a great nation. Best wishes -- for all of us in the world.
Brian Risman, Publisher and Founder, The Law Journal UK and Consultant in International Law
Press Release - Balzan Prize 2007 - Rosalyn Higgins, President of the International Court of Justice, The Hague among recipients
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