October 28, 2008

The Global Election

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One of the things that have made this election especially interesting has been the extent to which it has been followed around the world. Even excluding Obama’s and McCain’s international tours, worldwide expectations and interest are at an unusual high. This phenomenon can be traced to a variety of factors, but the events of the last eight years under President Bush probably lie at the core of foreign interest. International figures have made their endorsements, from the Mayor of London to Iranian officials, with even Al-Qaeda weighing in. More generally, polls have recorded candidate preferences around the world, with Gallup releasing a comprehensive cross-country poll.

What’s absolutely striking in the Gallup poll is just how strong support for Obama is around the world. Of the 70 countries where the poll was conducted, only four had a plurality of respondents supporting Senator McCain. This is not to say that Obama was a clear and decisive winner in the rest– often the “don’t know/refused to answer” option outpolled both Obama and McCain. But taken at face value, the polls seem to present a global consensus that a President Obama would be better for the world at large than a President McCain.

But on what information do respondents base these facts? If I could have my guess, they’re guided in part by a bit of self-delusion. On one hand Senator Obama talks about consulting with allies and bringing American diplomacy back within a multi-lateral framework–this is what people hear internationally. One the other hand, however, Obama never rejects unilateralism, even going so far as to support a unilateral American attack against Al-Qaeda in Pakistan, if necessary. Now personally, I’m of the opinion that such a policy may at some point be necessary, if unfortunate, while it certainly makes our policy less amendable to European interests. But during the campaign Obama has also criticized NAFTA and free trade, populist rhetoric that might have a negative effect on at least several world economies. So then it seems as if that the world has convinced itself that Obama would restore multilateralism. More realistically, maybe they are just convinced that an Obama administration would be better than one under McCain, or at least couldn’t be worse than the one in power for the last eight years.

An alternative explanation for the support of Senator Obama could lie in what his candidacy says about the United States and American democracy. This rationale is more appealing than foreign self-delusion. Obama presents a rosy picture of the fulfilled potential of America. A multi-racial child of immigrant parents, he is now one winning election away from being the most powerful man in the country and perhaps the world, all due to his own hard-work and talent.

Over the past eight years it has been easy for people around the world to criticize the American system and look cynically at American democracy. But with Obama comes the rebirth of the very idea that has made the United States appealing since its founding, the power of the ability of individuals to build their own lives and destinies. It’s hard to imagine a British-Pakistani Prime Minister of the UK, a French-Algerian President of France or a German-Turkish Chancellor of Germany. With the constant specter of far-right political parties throughout most of Europe, I think Obama embodies what many wish the world could be.

It should come as no surprise that the country that most strongly supports Obama is Kenya, the country of his father’s birth. For Kenyans and others in the developing world, Obama embodies the opportunities the U.S. can provide. For Americans, I think Obama’s inherent appeal is a combination of both European and the developing world’s rationales. He exemplifies the best of what we imagine our country to be and helps validate ourselves as Americans when we have begun to lose faith. Maybe these impressions have roots in our naïveté or senseless optimism, but having the opportunity to succeed in our dreams is also what makes our system and politics so alluring and sometimes even refreshing to outsiders. While the world can’t vote next Tuesday, make sure if you can, you do. For motivation, just think of those in Nairobi, Singapore, and London who would case your vote if they could.