American presidential elections are global events, followed with greater intensity and concern by many non-Americans than their own national elections. Fascinated with the characters and the unusual process, foreigners also increasingly see the results from an American election as a credibility test for the US.
Fairly or not, these results are seen as reflecting the essential American national character and as a summation of American attitudes towards the rest of the world. If Obama wins by even a razor thin margin, people the world over will view America as an open-minded and progressive nation. Conversely, if McCain scrapes to victory, America will be seen as deeply conservative and racist.
Many peoples around the world tend to view their own politicians as unrepresentative chameleons but in contrast see the American president as truly representative of America and Americans. This view reflects the heavy emphasis on personal biography in American politics and the tendency of presidential candidates to link their personal narrative with national mythology. It also reflects the appeal of stereotypes when making sense of any country or group.
The result of this election will see more than just national image at stake. At the end of eight years of President George W. Bush, America’s global prestige and even its security alliances are on the line. However much of the world still seems open to American politicians and even American global leadership as illustrated by the 200,000 Germans who turned out to see Barack Obama in Berlin. An Obama win could see global publics prepared to give America a second chance after a relationship breakdown during the Bush years.
On the other hand, a Republican victory would cause utter bewilderment and anger around the world, leading to an increased surge in anti-Americanism and making alliance management even more difficult.
Despite McCain's attempts to distance himself from George W. Bush, foreigners would tend to see another Republican in the Oval Office as an endorsement of economic, foreign and environmental policies they have largely seen as abject failures. Some would blame an Obama loss on lingering American racism, but given the lack of minority leaders in Western nations this response would likely be short lived.
More profound would be the recognition that America is even more conservative and insular than previously realised. And then there is how people would feel about vice president Sarah Palin.
International newspapers have been full of stories on Governor Palin. Just as she symbolises for many Americans the mythical small town hero, she also fits the stereotype of the know-nothing frontiersperson for many around the world. This same caricature of the American national image was also applied to George W. Bush who has been so easily and widely scorned. However, Bush had a flip side: the East Coast establishment dad, degrees from Yale and Harvard, and impressive connections. Palin’s fans can claim her as more genuine and untainted, but this also makes her more ignorant and therefore more worrying than Bush to much of the world.
Of course if a McCain/Palin administration were to adopt a moderate foreign policy, much of the foreign trepidation could be allayed. However, if they were to bomb Iran or support Israel doing the same, America could become increasingly isolated. Even getting more NATO or Australian troops to serve in Afghanistan could become problematic.
Will it all be different if Obama wins? The short answer is yes, which illustrates just how important perceptions are in politics. It is fairly likely that an Obama administration would follow many of the same global policies promoted by the Bush administration. However, in matters of style there would be significant differences and this should not be underestimated.
It seems to me that one of the principal lessons of the Bush administration is that how you explain your actions matters. Bush’s brash and cavalier statements were often judged harshly. Obama’s intellect and oratory skills would see the end of mangled cowboy metaphors and could be major assets.
As was the case during the Cold War America has very unattractive enemies, particularly jihadist terrorists. In the most important dimension of the fight against terrorism, the war of ideas, America should easily be able to win the argument. The fact that it has so misfired gives Obama a significant opportunity to re-present the case against terrorists. By firmly and thoughtfully opposing the activities of al-Qaida and its supporters, a President Obama could take the first but important step to restoring America’s image around the world.
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