Welcome to Your New Job, Mr. President

On the eve of his inauguration, eight world leaders tell Barack Obama how not to screw up.

On Jan. 21, 2009, Barack Obama will wake up as president of the United States -- a position only four other living people have held. And although the new president will have a well-stocked cabinet of advisors, very few can relate to what it feels like to suddenly be in charge of an entire country. It is precisely because of Obamas dual challenges -- domestic and international -- that FP sought the advice of former heads of state and government the world over. In telephone interviews over the last few weeks, past presidents and prime ministers on four continents passed along their advice and congratulations for the new leader of the free world. Excerpts:

On the meaning of Obama's election:

[As the first woman president of Ireland], I thanked the women of Ireland on the night of the election count. I felt I owed it to them to be a president who was proud of the fact that I was a woman. So I would say [to Obama], be yourself in that senseas an African-American who has received the trust of the people. Do it your way. Be very conscious of being true to that difference that has been accepted and trusted to bring about change in a very difficult time.

--Mary Robinson, president of Ireland (1990-1997)

Obama will be the person who lives up to [the] title leader of the free world more than any U.S. president in the past. Before, with all due respect, it was kind of like the baseball World Series. It was the World Series, but it was really just the American baseball championship. I dont think anyone has had the characteristics -- biography, lifestyle, and aptitude -- that Mr. Obama brings to that job.

--Jorge Quiroga, president of Bolivia (2001-2002)

[In India], we have many things in common with the poor of America. Indians have a great deal of regard for American society, and Obama's coming up shows again how any person can come up. We admire it.

--I.K. Gujral, prime minister of India (1997-1998)

I went to the U.S. for the first time in 1951 to start [at] Duke University. The first day that I landed in Raleigh airport, I discovered restrooms for white men and colored women. This is the same United States that elected President Obama. That capacity to change is what allows the so-called American dream. Those values are probably the best tools that the next president can show to the world. [Obama] will have tremendous moral power precisely because of what he has achieved in his personal capacity.

--Ricardo Lagos, president of Chile (2000-2006)

On the one thing youd tell Obama if you met him:

Just one word: consistency. Consistency in policy design, and consistency in the implementation of those designs. You can have a very consistent policy, but if the level of implementation varies through time, youre not going to be as effective. For example, you may have a consistent two-state solution policy in the Middle East, but if the level of engagement wanes or oscillates, then you will not be as successful.

--Jorge Quiroga

Please explain to the world that the same values that have been exemplified in U.S. history are the values that we would like to see also [on] the global stage. We should have a big change in the world, like you're about to have now in the United States!

--Ricardo Lagos

Keep your children out of the limelight; theyre too exposed [and] that cant be easy to cope with at that age. The more they can settle down with quiet anonymous lives in the good school youve chosen for them, the better.

Second, recognize the importance of the full participation and empowerment of women. If he could find the language to do that early on, it would greatly strengthen his own capacity to gain momentum on his decisions.

--Mary Robinson

I would tell Barack Obama that we are a country that is [like] Gandhi, and anything one wants to understand about India, one should read Gandhi more than anyone else.

--I.K. Gujral



Ask the Authors: Bruce W. Jentleson & Steven Weber

Authors Bruce W. Jentleson and Steven Weber answer your questions about America's Hard Sell.

1. What influence do you believe the criminal sector -- or the "criminal hegemonists" evolving, as evidenced by the various drug cartels, pirates, etc. that appear to have great appeal in Third World environments -- will have on the United States ability to sell its values to the region and the globe?

One person's criminal is, of course, another persons social service provider. And so these organizations have benefited from America's missteps at least as much or possibly more than have what the Pentagon calls peer competitors (that is, other states and governments). As we tune in to what the world now wants from us, rather than what we would like to give to it, lets not forget to listen closely to what the de facto constituents of what we call the criminal sector are getting from their allegiance and grants of legitimacy to those actors.

2. It appears that the current trend of socialist-style economic interventions in the United States will only embolden the "counterhegemonists" -- those who seek to undermine the dominant political and cultural players -- in their efforts to expand socialism. Do you agree?

Only if we let them. The set-piece ideological battle of socialism vs. capitalism is last generation's fight, not our generation's, and certainly not the next generation's. Making this about socialism and capitalism is dysfunctional. When we get past mantras about the magic of the marketplace, America is good at solving problems, and we do what it takes to fix whats broken. Call it pragmatism if you must, and brand it as a third economic ideology.

3. Can you identify how problem-solving actors can collaborate to help weak states improve their governance?

The question is the answer: Problem-solving actors, and collaboration. Take those two phrases seriously, and we are halfway there. Anyone who has spent time in a postconflict region and watched the massive political battles that take place between competing NGOs, foreign-aid workers, and so on -- to the detriment of the people who really need assistance -- will recognize just how far we are from problem-solving collaboration in those settings. The United States should press this issue to the fore by getting the official and unofficial actors on the ground that we have influence over to play by these rules or not play at all. There's a lot to be gained here with regard to our point in the article about mutuality.

4. The world's reaction to the election of Barack Obama, an African-American and the candidate for change, appears to have renewed, at least temporarily, some lost admiration for American ideals. Do you think a successful Obama presidency could resuscitate some or any of the five Big Ideas you describe?

Does the United States have a shot at competing for leadership in this new era? The Obama administration will have a window of opportunity -- a small but significant window -- to offer to the world a new American leadership proposition. Along with the fact that Obama is not George [W.] Bush, something which also would have been there for John McCain, the persona of Barack Obama does resonate globally in powerful ways. Now if the Obama foreign-policy team acts as if the world is simply waiting for a good guy American president to come in and say wer'e back with a set of 1990s leadership ideas, you'll be surprised at how quickly the global honeymoon comes screeching to an end.

5. The financial crisis isnt just the fallout of the U.S. economy; its global. If not Western-style capitalism, which economic model or new Big Idea do you see rising to the top?

State regulation and even state "direction" of economies are back in the game as real alternatives. The United States has a chance now to articulate a new version of how to balance regulation with competition, to strike a more functional and less volatile equilibrium than we've lived in the last decade. If we are going to have freer markets, we are going to have to have much better rules. And we will need to explain much more fully to ourselves and to others what we believe, and why, about the relationship between finance and the real economy. If we fail to do that soon, then much of the world will aggressively experiment, in ways that will surprise us, with dramatically different economic models.

6. Which actors do you predict will use the financial crises to boost their standing on the global playing field? Which will be successful and which will not?

As the truly acute phase of the crisis comes to an end, and it will at some point, we'll start to see visible manifestations of this simple fact: Everyone will be looking for ways to boost their standing on the global playing field, and in many cases, at America's expense. It is fundamentally wrong to believe that the world wants to "go back" to 2007 or even 1999, or essentially that kind of world economy minus its worst and most dangerous imbalances. The vast majority of people on this planet do not want that.

7. You write: "In this fast-paced and unpredictable setting, the five Big Ideas of American ideology were never immutable." If the "optimal model... for a just society is no longer synonymous with American democracy," what does that model look like? The world -- its economy, its political playing field, and technological developments -- isn't likely to slow down anytime soon. What set of ideals can possibly take hold better than American-bred democracy and free market capitalism (once the economy picks up again)?

You're right; we don't think traditional American-bred democracy and free market capitalism have a lock on the 21st-century global competition of ideas. Our answers to some of the other questions speak to the state-market dynamic as its playing out today and going forward. For many peoples around the world, the key political and policy question is not just freedom from, but capacity to; policy performance, not just political process; democracy that can deliver on basic human needs and a just society. That often means more emphasis on equity and social justice as core policy goals. And beyond what we say we think others should do, we need to walk the walk and do a lot better at home on issues like the 3 Es of economy, energy, environment; healthcare; and public education.

8. Because you didn't mention it in your piece: Who will be the end of ideology prophets you predict will emerge in the next decade?

There are many actors, state and nonstate, and we dont see this as being about packaged, one-stop-shopping isms. Within that, nominees welcome!