Five Reasons the World Wants Obama

Election '08

While Americans spend the next three months pondering which candidate is worthy of becoming the next U.S. president, the rest of the world made up its mind a long time ago: they want Barack Obama for president. This is evident in global polling conducted throughout the summer, showing that publics abroad prefer Senator Obama over Senator McCain by considerable margins. Most of this polling was conducted even before the senator made his trip abroad.

After about six months of blogging about the global phenomenon that is Obamania, I have devised a few theories on why Senator Barack Obama is so strongly favored by people living outside the U.S.

But first, a note on why people outside the U.S. care about the U.S. election at all. After all, they can't vote, why bother paying attention? The simple answer is: what the U.S. does, both domestically and internationally, affects people around the world. This is not to be taken as arrogance -- as if to say that when the U.S. commands everyone falls into line.

Rather, the economic, political and military influence that the U.S. has in the world, historically and presently, combined with the processes of globalization that make states more interdependent overall, means that the decisions made by the man sitting in the oval office effect not only Americans, but a great many non-Americans too. This characteristic of the currently "unipolar" international system is observed by both foreigners and Americans alike.

So, if Mr. President's decisions are going to affect you, why choose Senator Obama over Senator McCain -- and to such a great degree? Here's a list of five reasons why foreign publics tend to prefer the presumptive Democratic candidate over his Republican counterpart:

First, foreign audiences perceive Senator Obama as giving them what they want -- a change in US policy. Those people around the world who support Senator Obama believe his promise of change -- and want him to make good on it.

The second reason flows from the first: Senator Obama is, plain and simple, not George W. Bush -- who, as we know, is hugely unpopular overseas. But then again, neither is John McCain. Yet, thanks in part to our razor thin political spectrum, it's safe to say that Senator Obama represents the antithesis of the current president. That part doesn't get lost in translation.

The next two reasons share the same logic: foreigners choose Senator Obama because they want Americans to choose him too, because doing so would send foreigners positive signals about the current character of American society.

Third is the symbolism of electing an African American President. To elect Obama would paint American society as mature and tolerant. It would demonstrate that the American public possesses qualities that people abroad want it to posses (which are, not coincidentally, qualities that American society itself claims to posses).

Fourth, electing Senator Obama would reaffirm foreign publics' faith in another element of American society: its ability to reason. Back in 2004, to many abroad, Americans failed to choose the right candidate. Many outside the US didn't like George W. Bush even in 2000, and chuckled at the irony that a few dimpled chads prevented even a great democracy such as America's from holding a fair election.

Then, after President Bush started a war in Iraq for what seemed to them like all the wrong reasons, people abroad thought surely Americans will take the opportunity in 2004 to vote in a new president. When Americans re-elected Bush, foreign publics lost a certain degree of faith in the American people to make good choices.

In this way, if Americans in 2008 end up electing the candidate that foreign publics consider the "right" choice, Americans could be seen as rational again. And, given the degree to which the U.S. stands to affect their lives, they certainly want to believe Americans are rational.

My fifth and final theory on why the world wants Obama is the most mystical of all. Senator Obama's hybrid, international identity seems to magically appeal to people all over the world all at the same time -- without him even trying. His international upbringing makes him into a chameleon, from which foreign publics can pick and choose with which "Obama" they identify most -- the perceived Muslim, Asian, or African Obama, etc.

The monkey idol key chain is a great example of this phenomenon. In brief, a group of Indians became devout Obama supporters after reading a magazine report saying that the senator carried a good luck 'monkey king' charm, modeled after their revered Indian monkey God, Hanuman.

No doubt the Obama campaign must be trying to bottle this magical identity and use it to appeal to US voters across "middle America," New Hampshire and Texas all at the same time, instead of those without a vote in Asia, Africa and Europe. Or, some more skeptical of American open-mindedness might bet that the campaign buries the international part of the senator's identity altogether, opting for the perceived corn-fed Kansan Obama.

What does this all add up to? If the world gets the candidate they ask for, one thing's for sure: they will expect President Obama to deliver on his campaign promises of change. If he doesn't enact change he could lose their support and a considerable amount of U.S. soft power -- power that is already on the wane.

But, as I discussed above, there are some positive changes in foreigners' perceptions of the U.S. that could come about even if Senator Obama doesn't act on his promises. That is, if Americans make what foreigners believe to be the "right" choice.

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