comment: Obama's global ethical challenges -Peter Singer

 Obama needs to make the US a leader in reducing emissions. This may be the 
greatest ethical challenge of the Obama presidency, but because so much hangs 
on it, the way in which he responds to it is likely to play a decisive role in 
how his presidency will be judged

The astonishing 
story of Barack Obama's election as president has already done much to restore 
America's global image. In place of a president whose only qualification for 
the office was his father's name, we now have one whose intelligence and vision 
overcame the formidable obstacle of being the exotically named son of an 
African Muslim. Who would have believed, after the last two elections, that the 
American public was capable of electing such a candidate?

Obama's achievement raises the stakes for his first term in office. He 
campaigned on the theme that he is different from other politicians and will 
deliver real change. That appeal drew large and enthusiastic crowds, which, 
together with astute use of the Internet, gained him an unprecedented four 
million donors, and induced a huge number of African-Americans and young people 
to register to vote.

This is the chance of a lifetime to break through the cynicism that has 
pervaded American politics for decades. But if Obama fails to make good on his 
promise of change, it will be decades before the electorate again places its 
trust in a candidate who claims to be different from the usual run of 

Many Americans will judge the new administration by what it does at home. That 
includes raising taxes on those earning more than $250,000 a year, and using 
the money to extend health insurance to the tens of millions of Americans who - 
uniquely for an industrialised nation - do not have it. He has also pledged tax 
cuts for medium and lower-paid workers and improvements to America's education 
system. Keeping those promises despite America's gloomy economic prospects will 
not be easy. 

The biggest impact that Obama can make, however, is beyond America's borders. 
Last year, when speaking to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, he called 
for a president who can speak directly to everyone in the world who longs for 
dignity and security, and say: "You matter to us. Your future is our future. 
And our moment is now." Indeed, it is now. 

If Obama is to be that president, he should begin by keeping his promises to 
close the prison camp at Cuba's Guantánamo Bay and to end the Bush 
administration's practice of locking people away without ever telling them why 
or what they are charged with. He must also begin the process of withdrawing 
combat troops from Iraq, a task that he said would be completed in 16 months. 
Keeping these promises will be significant steps towards restoring America's 
image around the world.

Playing a constructive role in bringing about reform at the United Nations is 
also vital. The structure of the Security Council is 60 years old. It still 
gives the victors of the Second World War permanent membership of the Council, 
and a veto over its decisions. To change that will inevitably dilute the 
privileges of those nations, including the United States. But if any US 
president can overcome that historical shadow hanging over the UN, Obama can.

Given that Obama has a Kenyan father and has spent time in the African villages 
where his kin still live, it is no surprise that he understands the need for 
rich nations to assist developing nations. Last year, he pledged to double US 
foreign aid by 2012, raising it to $50 billion a year. (That still leaves the 
US lagging behind many European nations in the percentage of its national 
income that it gives in aid.)

US aid also must be better targeted toward helping those living in extreme 
poverty. Regrettably, when then-Senator, now Vice-President Joe Biden was asked 
what spending an Obama administration might have to curtail because of the 
financial crisis, he mentioned the pledge to increase foreign aid. But doubling 
US foreign aid involves a modest amount of money, compared to what will be 
saved by pulling out of Iraq.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of turning the US into a good global citizen 
is cutting back on its grossly excessive greenhouse gas emissions - roughly 
five times the global per capita average. On this issue, the Bush 
administration wasted eight precious years during which we have gotten 
perilously close to the point at which an irreversible chain of events could 
occur that leads to catastrophe. 

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni last year accused the industrialised 
countries of committing aggression against Africa by causing global warming. 
That may sound like hyperbole, but raising the temperature and reducing the 
rainfall of a predominantly agricultural nation can be as devastating to its 
people as dropping bombs on it.

Obama needs to make the US a leader in reducing emissions. Then, having 
demonstrated his good faith, he and European leaders should be able to work out 
a deal that will bring China and India into whatever agreement replaces the 
Kyoto protocol when it expires in 2012. This may be the greatest ethical 
challenge of the Obama presidency, but, because so much hangs on it, the way in 
which he responds to it is likely to play a decisive role in how his presidency 
will be judged. -DTPS

Peter Singer is Professor of bioethics at Princeton University. His next book, 
The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty, will be published in 


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