Barack Obama attacks ‘strongman politics’, saying world at crossroads between Mandela vision and ‘disturbing’ times

Barack Obama implicitly but repeatedly rebuked Donald Trump’s political vision on Tuesday as he gave warning that the “politics of fear” threatened to destroy the liberal values underpinning the modern global order.

Making arguably his most important intervention since stepping down as US president last year, Mr Obama painted a bleak vision of a world turning its back on progressive tolerance and again embracing a narrative of racial nativism and protectionism.

Striking an almost Churchillian “voice in the wilderness” tone, the former president said that the international community stood “at a crossroads — a moment in time at which two very different visions of humanity’s future compete.”

“The politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment… is on the move,” he told a 15,000-strong crowd in Johannesburg. “It’s on the move at a pace that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.”

By convention, American presidents do not comment on the policies of their successors and Mr Obama was careful not to mention Mr Trump by name.

Barack Obama, Graca Machel (L), widow of Nelson Mandela, and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa dance as South-Africamn singer Thandiswa Mazwai performs during the 2018 Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture Credit:

But having accepted an invitation to speak at the commemorations marking the centenary of Nelson Mandela’s birth, Mr Obama made it clear that he felt duty bound to espouse the late South African leader’s values.

A day after Mr Trump stood side-by-side with Vladimir Putin, having suggested that previous administrations were responsible for the deterioration in US-Russian relations, Mr Obama took aim at the Russian president.

He accused Russia of retreating into authoritarianism and “meddling with its neighbours,” and criticised China’s human rights record as he urged developing states to turn away from the temptation of aping Beijing’s anti-democratic model.

Twice, he said he found it hard to believe that he was having to explain why a world order based on equality, freedom and human rights was more desirable than “strongman” rule.

It was all a far cry, he added, from the hope and optimism that governed world policy after decolonisation and the end of the Cold War.

Cyril Ramaphosa talks to Barack Obama at the 16th Nelson Mandela annual lectureCredit:

“We now see much of the world threatening to return to an older, more brutal, more dangerous way of doing business,” he said.

But even as he delivered an impassioned defence of liberalism, globalisation and the market economy — which he said needed to be made fairer — it was clear that Mr Trump was also in his sights.

Acknowledging that politicians often lied, he suggested that the brazen culture of misinformation in these “strange and uncertain” times, was dangerously corrosive, removing the possibility of ending polarisation through reconciliation.

There was, he said, an “utter loss of shame among political leaders.”

“Too much of politics today seems to reject the very concept of basic truth,” he added. “They just make stuff up.”

“When they’re caught in a lie, they just double down and lie some more.”

Barack Obama said that those intent on “putting other people down and puffing themselves up” were “small-hearted"Credit:

In another apparent broadside, he said that those intent on “putting other people down and puffing themselves up” were “small-hearted.”

Only once did he move from the general to the particular, at least as far as Mr Trump is concerned, by criticising Western immigration policies that failed to respect humanity. 

He then seemed to make reference to the alleged separation of immigrant parents from their children at the US-Mexican border.

“For a mother with a child in their arms, we should recognise that could be my family, my child,” he said.

Although the former president conceded that the world had faced “darker times and deeper valleys” — particularly during the world wars — he also suggested that there were ominous parallels with mankind’s gloomiest periods. 

“We have a better story to  tell,” he said. “But to say that our vision is better is not to say that it will inevitably win — because history also shows the power of fear. History shows how easily people can be convinced to turn on people who look different, or worship in a different way.”

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