Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends - hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism - these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility...
- Barack Obama
To call it unprecedented would be to forget about what Britons went through between September 1938, when Neville Chamberlain signed a peace agreement with Adolph Hitler, and May 8, 1945 when VE-Day was declared. But the period from Sept. 11, 2001 to Jan. 20, 2009 - a period of physical attacks and attacks on principles, a period of fear, distrust, polarization, injustice - has been one of the most calamitous, mistake-prone and ugly eras of modern western democracy.
It ended Tuesday just as VE-Day brought an end to the Second World War in Europe, with an intensity of relief and of hope that few realized burned so hot within them.
Tempering the hopes of the more than one million people who gathered in Washington for Barack Obama's inauguration as 44th president of the United States of America, and the hopes of tens of millions more who watched on television or the Internet, was one of the objectives of the president's address Tuesday. The many challenges of these extraordinary times will not be met quickly. And it won't be one man or even one administration that tackles them alone.
An unrealistic level of faith has been invested in President Obama, by people all over the world. But those who listened to his words Tuesday also recognized that each of us has a role to play in confronting today's challenges. From corporations to individuals; from financial reform to protecting the environment, there are new expectations and new responsibilities.
This in itself is a radical change from the message delivered in recent years. Obama was speaking to Americans, but he was speaking to the world. Step up.
And he appears willing and prepared to step up himself and face head on an economic maelstrom, two wars and numerous domestic issues.
Can Canada, facing many of the same problems as the United States, be inspired by Obama's clarity and the hope he brings? Certainly there is no one on the Canadian political horizon who generates even one-tenth of the excitement that Obama sparks. The voter turnout for recent elections may reflect that.
But hope can transcend borders, generations, races. And it can spread. Canadians, like Americans and like people all over the world, are looking for inspiration and leadership in tough times. They are looking to Barack Obama, and he is telling us to look within.
When Obama visits Canada in the next few weeks the American leader is likely to be looking for assurances of commitments on three fronts: national security, Afghanistan and energy. There are always details to be worked out but Canada is already committed to Afghanistan until 2011, is already the United States' largest single supplier of oil and has worked with America on security issues for decades, despite the ignorant fears of some.
What Canada should show Obama is a commitment to exceed expectations and be a co-leader in energy, environmental protection and trade. Whether we will be so bold will be revealed in next week's budget.
Canadians will move easily from despising one American president to being envious of Americans for their new one, but we should not overlook one of Obama's central themes: individual commitment and responsibility.
The paragraph at the top of this column, from Obama's inauguration speech, concludes:
"- a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.
"This is the price and the promise of citizenship."