Conflicts freeze as Obama takes office

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As Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States in a ceremony watched by billions worldwide yesterday (20 January), two conflicts came to an end, sending a message to the new leader of the world’s only remaining superpower.

Barack Hussein Obama, who used his middle name as he was sworn in as a symbolic gesture to the Muslim world, inherited two wars from his predecessor – in Iraq and in Afghanistan – and a major world economic crisis. 

Tellingly, two other conflicts fizzled out just before his inauguration: the Israeli offensive in Gaza and the second ‘gas war’ between Russia and Ukraine, which had begun in the New Year and replicated a similar conflict in January 2006. 

Many observers noted that the Israeli operation had been carefully planned for the final days of George W. Bush’s mandate, to avoid major interference from Washington. In his twenty-minute inauguration speech, Obama neglected to mention the Middle East conflict, despite earlier assurances that the issue would rank high on his agenda. 

Obama told the Muslim world that he will seek “a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect”. 

“To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West – know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist,” the first black American president said. 

In his speech, Obama also opted not to mention Russia, which according to various observers “won” the ‘gas war’ yesterday, by obtaining favourable economic terms for sales to Ukraine and by weakening that country’s pro-NATO president, Viktor Yushchenko. 

The timing for resolving the crisis is seen by many as a signal that Moscow is beginning to “question the post-Cold War environment,” one prominent East European MEP stated recently. 

In Brussels, Ion Mircea Pascu (PES, Romania), a former defence minister in Bucharest, warned the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee that the gas row will be “the biggest geostrategic game for the next fifty years”. He said Europe should not simply blame Russia, but rather understand that the country has been pushed into a corner in the last decade, and now wants to reassert its regained power. “But we need to react,” he added. 

In a policy paper, the European Institute for Security Studies advises the EU and the US to engage in close consultations to make its Russia policies more compatible, including by giving “serious consideration” to a proposal by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev regarding the European security architecture. 

European Commission President José Manuel Barroso issued a statement on the occasion of the inauguration of US President Obama, calling for the US and other partners in the world to devise and implement "a new agenda for globalisation". 

"I look forward to working together with President Obama and his administration to promote a politics of global engagement, that will support international institutions reformed to address effectively our global responsibilities, from climate change to development aid, trade, democracy and human rights, and sound financial systems," the statement reads. 

"Today, the eyes of the world are on President Obama. But tomorrow, indeed immediately, it is the world that must have his - and our – attention. We look forward here in the European Commission to joining with the United States and our partners to rise and meet the challenges of globalisation. I personally believe that the election of President Obama was a defining, turning point for America. It may now also be an important turning point for the rest of the world," Barroso further stated. 

European Parliament President Hans-Gert Pöttering congratulated Barack Obama and renewed his invitation to the president to address a plenary session of the European Parliament in early April, coinciding with his first visit to Europe on the occasion of the G20 Summit in London and the 60th Anniversary NATO Summit in Strasbourg and Baden Baden. 

"With the arrival of this new US Administration, we can re-launch transatlantic relations and put them on a new and dynamic footing. We have a unique chance to open a new chapter and engage in new thinking. Our aim is to forge a strong EU-US partnership based on equality," Pöttering said. 

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said that he wanted to "change the world" together with Obama. He said he could hardly wait for the president to take up the job. "France is eager to work hand in hand with its friends and ally American," he wrote in a letter to Obama. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Germany's ARD TV: "I hope that our cooperation will be coined by listening to each other and making decisions based upon the common understanding that the world’s problems cannot be solved by a country alone but only by a joint effort." 

UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown offered to cooperate closely with Obama. The new president is a man "of great vision and moral objectives" who will tackle the financial as well as other crises, he stated. 

New US President Barack Obama was an early opponent of the Bush administration's foreign policies, calling for "phased redeployment" from Iraq and demanding the opening of diplomatic dialogue with Syria and Iran. 

During his campaign, the Illinois senator stated that he would cut defence budgets and stop investing in "unproven" missile defence systems. Obama also called for more decisive international action against genocide in Darfur. 

Obama's international agenda, and the shift from a Republican to a Democratic administration from which neo-conservatives have been expelled, has inspired European politicians to speak of "a new beginning in transatlantic relations". But much over-expectation has accompanied more realistic hopes. 

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