Sky-high expectations

People are looking to him to rewrite the image of America, both at home and abroad - all this and mu

This was not the first American election I watched on foreign soil. Last time around (also when I was in London, as a matter of fact), Senator John Kerry sank beneath the undertow of a swift boat smear campaign and his own weighty rhetoric as America re-elected George W Bush by a slim margin.

So I had a mild case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as I watched the results come in last night, wary to the last. It took McCain’s gracious and humble concession speech for the reality to sink in that America had just elected Barack Hussein Obama as the next president.

Obama carries on his shoulders a heavy burden and sky-high expectations. He inherits a global financial crisis, two faltering wars, global climate change, a trillion dollar national debt, a possible recession and America’s tarnished international reputation.

Republican pundits snidely remarked that he walked on water and parted the Red Sea, but with the situation as it stands in America and around the world, President-elect Obama may indeed have to perform such feats.

In his acceptance speech, delivered to an expectant crowd of thousands, he was careful to mention the possible setbacks and sacrifices ahead, preparing the nation for the hard road ahead.

His election, no doubt, represents the making of history and the breaking of barriers, but the true test for president-elect Obama will come when he takes office in January, replacing a deeply unpopular and unsuccessful president. People are looking to him to rewrite the image of America, both at home and abroad, after the devastation of Katrina, after the frustration of Iraq and Afghanistan, after the humiliation of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. People are looking to him to epitomise the ephemeral American Dream, where a global citizen with a Kenyan father, brought up in Kansas and Indonesia, educated in Harvard and refined on Chicago’s streets is able to step into the spotlight on the Washington D.C. stage.

Ironically, if Senator John McCain had run this campaign like the candidate he was in 2000, he might have had a much greater chance at defeating Obama. That bipartisan, dignified and “straight talking” McCain made a brief appearance when he conceded the election to Obama last night, silencing a booing crowd. The last desperate months of the Republican campaign saw some ugly crowds shouting everything from “socialist” to “terrorist,” but pragmatism prevailed over partisan politics as scores of voters chose Obama’s message of change and bipartisanship rather than the Republican party’s politics of fear.

President-elect Obama humbly acknowledged his triumph, saying, “This victory alone is not the change we seek. It is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were.” He indirectly addressed those booing in the McCain crowd, saying, “And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn, I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices. I need your help. And I will be your president, too.”

Having run a successful campaign on the effervescent messages of hope and change, Obama will require people to maintain those emotions through his tenure in office. Americans will need to store away the hope left over after his victory and bring it out to savour when the already difficult road gets tougher, when the current dream melts away to the reality of next year. President-elect Obama has charisma, intellect and an undisputable eloquence, but only next year will show whether his ideals and eloquence translate to decisive action in the highest office.

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Building peace in a dangerous world needs resources, not just goodwill

Conflict resolution is only the first step.

Thursday 21 September is the UN-designated International Day of Peace. At noon on this day, which has been celebrated for the last 25 years, the UN general secretary will ring the Peace Bell on the UN headquarters in New York and people of good will around the world will take part in events to mark the occasion. At the same time, spending on every conceivable type of weaponry will continue at record levels.

The first couple of decades after the end of the Cold War saw a steady reduction in conflict, but lately that trend seems to have been reversed. There are currently around 40 active armed conflicts around the world with violence and suffering at record levels. According to the 2017 Global Peace Index worldwide military spending last year amounted to a staggering $1.7 trillion and a further trillion dollars worth of economic growth was lost as a result. This compares with around 10 billion dollars spent on long term peace building.

To mark World Peace Day, International Alert, a London-based non-government agency which specialises in peace building, is this week publishing Redressing the Balance, a report contrasting the trivial amounts spent on reconciliation and the avoidance of war with the enormous and ever growing global military expenditure.  Using data from the Institute for Economics and Peace, the report’s author, Phil Vernon, argues that money spent on avoiding and mitigating the consequences of conflict is not only morally right, but cost-effective – "every dollar invested in peace building reduces the cost of conflict".

According to Vernon, "the international community has a tendency to focus on peacemaking and peacekeeping at the expense of long term peace building."  There are currently 100,000 soldiers, police and other observers serving 16 UN operations on four continents. He says what’s needed instead of just peace keeping is a much greater sustained investment, involving individuals and agencies at all levels, to address the causes of violence and to give all parties a stake in the future. Above all, although funding and expertise can come from outside, constructing a durable peace will only work if there is local ownership of the process.

The picture is not wholly depressing. Even in the direst conflicts there are examples where the international community has help to fund and train local agencies with the result that local disputes can often be settled without escalating into full blown conflicts. In countries as diverse as East Timor, Sierra Leone, Rwanda and Nepal long term commitment by the international community working with local people has helped build durable institutions in the wake of vicious civil wars. Nearer to home, there has long been recognition that peace in Ireland can only be sustained by addressing long-standing grievances, building resilient institutions and ensuring that all communities have a stake in the outcome.

At a micro level, too, there is evidence that funding and training local agencies can contribute to longer term stability. In the eastern Congo, for example, various non-government organisations have worked with local leaders, men and women from different ethnic groups to settle disputes over land ownership which have helped fuel 40 years of mayhem. In the Central African Republic training and support to local Muslim and Christian leaders has helped reduce tensions. In north east Nigeria several agencies are helping to reintegrate the hundreds of traumatised girls and young women who have escaped the clutches of Boko Haram only to find themselves rejected by their communities.

Peace building, says Vernon, is the poor cousin of other approaches to conflict resolution. In future, he concludes, it must become a core component of future international interventions. "This means a major re-think by donor governments and multilateral organisations of how they measure success… with a greater focus placed on anticipation, prevention and the long term." Or, to quote the young Pakistani winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala Yousufzai: "If you want to avoid war, then instead of sending guns, send books. Instead of tanks, send pens. Instead of soldiers, send teachers."

Redressing the Balance by Phil Vernon is published on September 21.   Chris Mullin is the chairman of International Alert.