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Listen and Act with Humility

November 5, 2008

“Change has come to America,” Barack Obama said to supporters in Grant Park last night. Similar to George W. Bush, future President Barack Obama also spoke of the need to unify this country. “We are not Red States, or Blue States, we are the United States,” Obama has said many times.

But, one of the most striking things about this election, was the interest friends I have met abroad showed in the outcome. Having lived in France, the U.K., and traveled in places like South Africa, Morocco, and many parts of Europe while the Bush Administration was in power, I saw first hand the antipathy towards U.S. policies – particularly, the Bush Administration’s disdain for international cooperation and diplomacy. But I also saw the desire for better a partnership with America.

Last night, Barack Obama promised “a new dawn of American leadership,” further noting that “true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope.” This is a powerful message in very uncertain times.

There are many things President elect Obama could do in the first 100 days to reflect this new leadership. He could close Guantanamo, begin efforts to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, pay down U.S. debt to the United Nations and bolster U.S. civilian foreign policy agencies with greater funds. But the most profound signal, would be to express a greater willingness to listen than his predecessor.

Travel and listen to what the rest of the world thinks, and the ideas they have for addressing 21st century problems. Many in the U.S. – including myself – get caught up believing U.S. influence and power can fix the entire world. We can’t. And increasingly, the challenges of the 21st century are global and require international partnerships.

Rolling back climate change, fixing the global financial crisis, dealing with growing energy demands, reducing global poverty and helping to resolve the world’s most entrenched conflicts would all benefit from greater, more responsible U.S. engagement. But there are times when listening, taking a back seat role and coordinating our efforts with others is the solution.

One instance was in Kenya last winter. Kofi Annan led the effort to resolve the deadly conflict after the flawed elections in Kenya. At first, the U.S. ambassador to Kenya bumbled the U.S. response by declaring Mwai Kibaki (the incumbent) the winner of the election. Later after it was more clear that the election was flawed, Kofi Annan requested greater coordination in the international communities’ response to the crisis from the U.S. and other influential countries. Secretary Rice’s office responded favorably. For instance, Rice’s office reportedly sent press statements to Kofi Annan’s aids for clearance before going to press. In the end, a coordinated multilateral response and an African led mediation process, along with opposition from civil society helped end the crisis.

Leadership isn’t always taking the lead or flexing one’s muscle; many times its listening, cooperating with others and recognizing the limits of one’s power. Barack Obama would be wise to bring these characteristics into his approach to U.S. engagement with the world.

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