Obama's Global Priorities

James Traub: His paradigm is much more fixing weak states.  He would say, the danger to us, this is where he’ll be similar of what [George W.] Bush would have. The danger to us is this weak states, not just Afghanistan, states in Africa that have no public health system and so someone gets a terrible infectious disease, they walk on a plane, they come out of JFK, and the next thing you know, we’ve got it. 

And so, he would say, not only for moral reasons, but for national security reasons, we have to take really seriously this nation building thing which the Bush Administration thought was just idealistic flop or left-wing flop rather. 

And so, he is going to walk, I think, not just at the Arab world the way Bush did, because for Bush it was, here is terrorism, how can we neutralize terrorism at its source? Democracy.  Well, yes, that’s true in a long term.  It doesn’t seem to be a very successful solution on a short term. 

So, Obama would look at some other places, I think.  The one place in the Middle East he would be profoundly preoccupied with, in the sense, is Pakistan.  Pakistan is every kind of problem that there can be and one of them is a state building problem. And they do need help from the outside. They’re also very hostile to United States so it takes a lot of delicacy.  

But Obama is not George [W.] Bush and he can probably do things George Bush could not have done.  But then I think Obama will look at, he’ll pay more attention, I suspect, to African countries, Latin American countries, whether there are democracies or not. What can we do about these weak states?  How can we enhance them? 

But you raised the question of money.  Once you’re talking about, not just about democracy promotion, like, yes, we’re going to tell Mubarak he has to have democratic elections, but state building.  State building is a thing that costs money. 

When Joe Biden was asked in the Vice Presidential debate to name a program that he would cut because the economic crisis meant that we could no longer afford it, he had one example ready to hand, foreign aid.  And, of course, politically that’s what you’ll say, because foreign aid is the only place where you spend money on people who aren’t voting for you. But it’s also a way of saying, the really terrible thing is it’s a way of saying this is not something we do for reasons of national security.  It’s a nice thing that we do, and, unfortunately, we can’t afford to do that nice thing at least not as much as we thought, and that’s a mistake. 

You’re not going to sell it to the American people as it’s a nice thing, and nor is it so.  Certainly, if you think about it in this fixing failed states paradigm, it’s an indispensable thing for us to do.  So I hope that, in fact, that doesn’t come to pass that drastic cut.

New York Times magazine contributor James Traub on building states, Obama-style.

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