President Obama's recent trips to the G-20 in Europe and the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad have underscored his fundamental realignment of American foreign policy - a shift that will make America both militarily and economically more secure.
Five critical changes are especially important:
1). America has finally abandoned its decades-long attempts to force "market fundamentalism" on the world.
For the last half-century U.S. policy has been wedded to the fallacy that "free" markets always find equilibrium, and are always the superior means for allocating economic resources. Last fall's collapse of the financial markets finally put a stake through the heart of the "Washington Consensus" that allowed the IMF and other international financial institutions to force these policies on other countries - particularly in the developing world. Of course the "Washington Consensus" was not simply a product of faulty economic "science." It reflected the short-term interests of the largest multi-national corporations as well.
Much of the world had rejected this view long ago. In Latin America and the Caribbean, most countries are now governed by center-left parties that have explicitly rejected "market fundamentalism" because it had failed so miserably to increase the standard of living for most of their people.
The Obama administration's views are much more consistent with a new international consensus that real long-term economic growth requires reliance on a mix of market mechanisms, strong regulatory structures and a robust public sector that is the most effective method for efficiently delivering services like health insurance, infrastructure, education, social insurance and public services.
These new economic policies reflect a bottom-up approach to economic policy that is fundamentally at odds with the failed economic policies of the past. They are not only critical for renewed economic growth at home - but also to developing economies around the world. That is enormously important to everyday Americans - both because we can never be secure as an island of relative prosperity in a sea of poverty, and because we will all be more prosperous if everyone on earth has the ability to contribute to our common store of wealth and knowledge.
2). A new commitment to multi-lateral policymaking - and "respect" for other countries.
In his press conference concluding the Summit of the Americas, President Obama explicitly restated his view that there are no "senior or junior" partners in charting the future for our hemisphere. He argued that no problem can be solved by one nation alone. He committed America to listen to other countries and not to simply dictate policy - the hallmark of the Bush-NeoCon approach to the world.
Fundamentally, foreign policy is no different from any other kind of politics. And in politics the one message that will never be forgiven is "disrespect." The reason is that once you have addressed the fundamental biological needs like those for food and shelter, there is very little more important to human beings than their own sense of meaning in life. Respect says: "you are important... you have meaning." Disrespect says just the opposite.
If there is anything that the last eight years should have taught us, it's that feelings of being disrespected - and the need for meaning - can drive people to do otherwise entirely irrational things: like strapping bombs onto their bodies or crashing airplanes into buildings.
Obama's release of the "torture memos" has been criticized by some former top Bush officials as "endangering our security" by exposing the methods we use to extract information. In fact, their release punctuated Obama's rejection of torture as a means of "extracting information." There is no doubt that their publication will never advantage a subject of interrogation facing torture, since America never intends to torture anyone else again.
Instead the documents' release - and Obama's forceful rejection of torture - will prevent these methods from being used in the future as powerful recruiting posters for Al Qaeda and its allies, or as an emblem of hypocrisy and disrespect that likely did more to build hatred for the United States than any other single policy in the last half-century in American foreign policy.
3). A commitment to once again use our non-military assets to support America's interests.
In his Sunday remarks, President Obama pointed to the goodwill that Cuba has earned in the hemisphere by sending doctors to countries throughout the region as an example of the power of non-military policies.
He pointed out that if the only contact that those in other nations have with the United States is with "drug interdiction" or our military, we fail to use some of our most powerful assets.
Of course, since the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis over 40 years ago, the countries of Latin America have never really posed a threat to the United States. That didn't stop past American administrations from using military force - or the CIA - to interfere in their affairs. The list is long: from the overthrow of the democratically-elected government of Chile in the 1970's, to the Contra war against the democratically-elected government of Nicaragua and war in El Salvador in the 1980's, to the backing Bush gave to the abortive military coup against the democratically-elected government of Venezuela just a few years ago.
President Obama clearly intends to turn away from this brand of military intervention, that ultimately earned America enmity throughout Latin America and made a mockery of our support for democratic institutions.
The medicines that cure malaria cost only $.55 per dose. The nets to shield children from malaria-carrying mosquitoes are only a dollar each, and the annual cost of indoor insecticide spraying is $10. Yet 800,000 African children die of malaria each year.
One of the great tragedies of the Bush years is not simply the damage done by his policies, but the missed opportunities. Money invested in public health, HIV treatment, healthcare clinics, fresh water, education for women, etc. would yield such massive results. Think of what could have been done with the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on the Iraq war alone.
4). The recognition that what the people of the rest of the world thinks of the United States really matters to us.
The Obama administration understands that world opinion actually matters. Of course, it should be obvious that if the United States is trying to create a democratic world order, then the opinions of the voters across the globe will significantly affect the policies of their governments. After all, that's the idea of democracy.
For eight years, the Bush era NeoCons reasserted the failed Vietnam-era view that "if you have them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow." That didn't work any better this time than it did in the 1960s.
This is not a "kumbaya" let's-make-everyone-like-us-and-everything-will-be-alright approach to foreign policy. As the president made clear Sunday, countries are bound to have different interests - and will vigorously advocate those interests. But even in countries without democratic institutions, a favorable view of the United States among their populations makes it much more likely that agreements can be struck, and compromises achieved.
And the enmity of a county's population makes it ever so much more likely that opposing American interests becomes "good politics" for that nation's leaders.
5). Willingness to put aside the rigid ideological divisions of the past.
The Obama administration seems intent on escaping the ideological divisions that emerged from the cold war and from America's rigid adherence to the "Washington Consensus" of market fundamentalism. That presents us with enormous opportunities for constructive engagement with other countries - particularly in Latin America.
Cuba is probably the best example. America's policy of isolating Cuba politically and economically was put in place before Barack Obama was born. It has utterly failed to change the policies of the Cuban government. It has also successfully isolated us from the rest of the world. The U.S. is now the only country that maintains an embargo and an outrageous ban on travel by Americans to the island nation just 90 miles from our shores.
We fought a shooting war with Vietnam in which we lost 49,000 troops, yet today Vietnam is a major tourist destination for Americans and a trading partner of major importance.
We still have major differences with China, yet that country is one of our major trading partners and creditors.
No one argues that Cuba is a threat to the United States. The best way to affect the development of Cuba is to engage with that country - allow our people to travel there - develop trade - and exchange ideas. And remember, there are things we could learn from Cuba as well as the other way around. That country's commitment to health care for everyone and universal literacy are models.
Ironically, the one thing that likely prevented Cuba from becoming a more open, social-democratic country in the last half-century has been the economic embargo and isolation imposed by the United States.
The Obama administration's elimination of restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba by relatives was universally heralded by every other country at the Latin American summit. Hopefully, it will be just the first step towards allowing Americans to travel there, and eliminating the economic embargo that punishes our own businesses more than the Cubans.
In summary, when it comes to the new Obama foreign policy, I believe that one thing is certain: Future generations - and history - will mark the changes we are witnessing in America's relations with the rest of the world as a critical turning point that fundamentally enhanced the long-term security and economic well-being of the United States.
Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the recent book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on Amazon.com
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