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The last best hope

Can a United States led by Barack Obama really change its attitudes towards the rest of the world?

The American Future: a History

Simon Schama Bodley Head, 400pp, £20

Will America Change?

Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies Icon Books, 252pp, £8.99

No president in recent American history, not even John F Kennedy, will come to office with such a weight of expectation as Barack Obama. The hope of most ordinary Americans that he will rescue them speedily from deep recession is the least of it. Obama's mission, as most of his supporters see it (and that means the large majority of the planet), is to change the nature of America - a nature, some would say, that goes back 30 years, but according to others dates much further back - possibly even to the New World's first European settlers.

The federal state, as many US liberals see it, has been captured by business, by a plutocracy that seeks political power only to enrich itself. Books on this subject have poured off the American presses this year. In one, James Galbraith (son of the late J K) dissects The Predator State. In another, Robert Reich, Bill Clinton's one-time labour secretary, analyses Supercapitalism: how it is accountable to nothing but profit-making, replaced democratic capitalism and destroyed the idea of citizenship. In a third book, the social commentator Thomas Frank calls the Republicans and their allies The Wrecking Crew, who have seized the state in order to destroy liberalism as a practical alternative, and might have succeeded if George W Bush's plans to privatise social security had gone through. Democracy has been buried, Frank argues, beneath an avalanche of money, and several elections, never mind just one, won't change this as democracy cannot work when wealth is distributed so lopsidedly. It will take, he writes, "years of hard political work, a direct engagement with and repudiation of laissez-faire, and a reconstruction project of massive proportions".

Obama's promise of change places that agenda squarely in his in-tray. He is not just the first black president, but also the first northern, urban liberal to be elected since Kennedy. He also carries the expectations of the African-American population, which, after initial suspicions, backed him in unprecedented numbers. It is not easy to see how one mixed-race occupant of the White House can alter the familiar, shocking statistics about how black boys have more chance of going to prison than to university. Unlike his two predecessors, Obama hasn't sent any blacks to be lethally injected in order to improve his electability, but then, not being a state governor, he didn't get the opportunity.

America's many worshippers in the UK - who practise a version of what Australians call "the colonial cringe" - are awestruck by the idea of a black man in the White House and, as Simon Schama confidently asserted to an American audience recently, we won't see a Sikh from Southall in No 10 any time soon. To which one may reasonably reply that the Sikhs may not have to wait more than 200 years, as blacks have waited in America, failing to be elected not just to the presidency but also, with just five exceptions (including Obama), to the Senate. Besides, the black bit of Obama is not authentically American. The point is rarely made that, though America experienced frequent outbursts of violent xenophobia (particularly against Chinese and Mexicans), many later immigrants, regardless of skin colour, have prospered. Black Caribbeans, for example, do better in the US than in Britain, because they do not slot in automatically at the bottom of the pile, that position being reserved for the established African-Americans. Obama's success by itself does not, and should not, purge the wrongs still done to the descendants of black slaves or, indeed, to Native Americans. But that is the symbolic role thrust upon him.

Then there is the rest of humanity, which is more preoccupied by how America conducts itself abroad. To millions of Africans, Asians, Latin Americans and even Europeans, the United States has grown arrogant and oppressive in the exercise of power. They see a country so committed to armed force that, according to one calculation, if you had spent £15m every day since the birth of Christ, you would still not exceed American defence spending since 1945; that persistently refuses to support international agreements on, for example, climate change; that interprets "free trade" to mean one-way access to poor countries for American multinationals and American products; that believes its national security entitles it not only to occupy Iraq and Afghanistan, but to mount murderous raids on those countries' neighbours. To be sure, many non-Americans aspire to drink Coca-Cola, eat hamburgers, wear baseball caps, watch Hollywood films and, often, live and study in America, just as Indians and Barbadians often aspired to be more British than the British. Which does not make them less conscious of their dependency and loss of cultural autonomy. All that, too, will be found on Obama's agenda whether he likes it or not.

So, as the title of the book by Sardar and Davies has it, Will America Change? For the authors, the rhetorical question demands a negative answer. They argue that US foreign policy doesn't change significantly when a Democrat is in the White House. For the rest of the world, "morning in America is always the dawn of Groundhog Day". The aim, whether it's Kennedy or Nixon, Clinton or Bush (Jr or Snr), Obama or McCain, is to project power and influence so as to create a world that serves American interests and values. Administrations differ in their preference for soft over hard power, persuasion over brute force. But the hardness and brutishness are always available when necessary. A Democrat might stop short of torture, but only because he or she believed it might be counterproductive to the great expansionist American project.

That project is based on a belief, rooted deep in American history, that the US represents humanity's future ("the last, best hope") and, in that sense, argue Sardar and Davies, "dominance is what America is for". America can only change, they believe, if it selects a road it has never yet travelled: "of trusting global plurality, building cooperation, embracing mutual trust and the need to listen to and learn from other people". Obama may have used a few similar phrases in his election speeches - they're certainly vague enough for electoral use - but if voters had understood him to mean what Sardar and Davies presumably mean, he wouldn't have won.

Schama, in a more sophisticated fashion, also delves into American history to predict how America's future (and, therefore, the planet's future) could turn out. Though he might not dispute the historical flaws that Sardar and Davies identify, he reaches quite different conclusions. To him, changing America, far from being impossible, is like flicking a switch. Indeed, he begins with the moment when the switch was flicked: "7.15 p.m. Central Time, 3 January 2008, Precinct 53, Theodore Roosevelt High". Schama (who isn't always as scholarly as a Columbia University professor should be) was in Des Moines, Iowa when Obama was about to win his first primary. "The glory of American life," he writes, "is its complexity . . . From the richness of that complexity come, always, rejuvenating alternatives . . . Americans roused can turn on a dime, abandon habits of a lifetime . . . convert indignation into action and before you know it there's a whole new United States in your neighbourhood."

According to Schama, Americans have already started a process not far removed from what Sardar and Davies demand: "What they are doing is looking hard at America - the whole bundle of history, economy, geography, power." Since I haven't been there this past year, I'll have to take his word for it though, if we're identifying such moments, I was in Washington when the switch was last flicked, and Ronald Reagan supporters, all with big hats and bigger voices, came to town for the 1981 inauguration and, spotting a wet liberal Brit, had me thrown out of my hotel room.

The nub of the Sardar/Davies case is that America's original sin doesn't consist only in slavery. It began with invasion and murder. The first settlers did not, as myth has it, find a fresh, virginal land, a new Eden, but one that was already "peopled, settled, cultivated". It had some 20 million inhabitants, possibly as many as 50 million. By the end of the 19th century, barely 250,000 remained, most of whose ancestors did not die from inadvertently imported viruses, as many believe. Europeans took across the Atlantic a different kind of virus: an identity "shaped and defined in opposition to other people, particularly Muslims, the vilified and demonised enemy". First, it was Native Americans who fulfilled the oppositional role, later it was communists, and now it is Muslims once more.

If America never built an overseas empire, it was partly because it created one internally, expanding south and west and ruthlessly removing those in its way. The imperial mission, however, did not, could not, disappear, and it has been no less imperial because it didn't involve direct rule but, rather, military outposts, puppet regimes, IMF minders and American ownership of local businesses. The founding fathers held certain truths to be self-evident, and it was America's duty, her manifest destiny, to ensure they were introduced to the rest of the world. As Clyde Prestowitz put it in Rogue Nation, the republic carries the "implicit belief that every human being is a potential American, and that his or her present national or cultural affiliations are an unfortunate but reversible accident".

The only thing wrong with this account is that, in a way, it falls for another myth: American exceptionalism. The Romans, the British, the French under Napoleon, the Russians under Soviet rule - all wished to impose their own laws, cultures and political structures on less enlightened people. In the post-1945 era, no Soviet leader before Gorbachev countenanced any version of socialism in its eastern European client states that deviated in the slightest from Moscow's model. Likewise, America would not tolerate, except where it had no alternative as in post-Maoist China, capitalism that deviated from Washington's model.

The nub of Schama's argument, however, is that America, from the beginning, has been a country of dualities and paradoxes. Thomas Jefferson abhorred the idea of a standing army, even of a purely military college (the first head of West Point was a mathematician with no military experience whatever); Americans, he thought, should be citizens first and soldiers second, called into action only to defend their freedoms and homesteads. Alexander Hamilton, by contrast, thought Americans faced too many enemies to risk being unprepared for war. Again, Jefferson, a deist who wouldn't have stood a chance in any recent presidential election, wanted complete freedom of conscience, even for non-believers. John Adams believed public order and popular happiness could not be maintained without "instructions in piety, religion and morality", and favoured compulsory church attendance. At stages of American history, and in various parts of America, Jefferson is in the ascendant; at and in others, we find Hamilton or Adams, particularly, in the past 60 years, Hamilton.

Yet Jefferson wasn't always on the "right" side. He was against immigration from Europe's absolute monarchies, using the argument (which has interesting similarities to that used by the late Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands) that a republic based on the "freest principles" was peculiarly vulnerable to those who had imbibed alien values. Equally, the religious impulse wasn't always on the "wrong" side. It was religious feeling, not Enlightenment principles, that freed the slaves. Religious groups were a force in 1960s politics as they have been in American politics of the last decade or two; but, in the former instance, they campaigned for the civil rights of blacks, not of unborn children. "The Kingdom of Jesus; that's what I want," a black civil rights activist told Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon B Johnson's vice-president.

Schama's account, because it is more subtle and richly textured, is more engaging than that of Sardar and Davies. One wants him, desperately, to be right. There is something about the theatre of American politics, the eloquence with which the country habitually expresses its aspirations, the sense of boundless possibility it exudes, the examples of high idealism and generosity in its history that appeals to our jaded European minds. Obama has brought all that back, promising, to borrow Schama's word, a "reaffirmation" of what is best about America. But one fears, all the same, that the grimmer, less nuanced message of Sardar and Davies will turn out to be the correct one.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 17 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Obamania