by Geschichte Grad | 3/21/2008 09:00:00 PM
I'd like to suggest some of the international significance of the Obama campaign, starting with four points:

1) When surveying the Democratic field last year, Eric Alterman said/wrote (I can't remember where) that the election of Obama to the presidency would, overnight, go a long way to repairing the United States's image abroad.

2) In the aftermath of the election violence in Kenya, the BBC programme (hey, it's British) "World Have Your Say" ran a show in which one of the callers (from Kenya) suggested that had the Iowa caucuses been held a week earlier [before the Kenyan elections], there would have been no violence in Kenya, because people there would have been so focused on Obama's victory.

3) Back in February (the 15th, to be precise), NPR's Morning Edition ran a story on the upcoming Italy, where Walter Veltroni is running a campaign openly inspired by Obama; Veltroni's campaign uses the slogan "si puo fare" ("Yes, we can" in Italian).

4) On Friday, a German friend wrote me and said "Für mich wird interessant sein, ob die amerikanischen Bürger eine Änderung ihrer Politik bewirken wollen, oder ob es weitergehen wird wie in den letzten Jahren." Roughly translated, that's "To me, it'll be interesting to see whether American citizens will make change in their politics, or go on as in earlier years." (Also, my friend's garden and grandchildren are doing quite well, thank you.)

Although points two, three, and four don't prove the assertion in point one, they give some sense of how important the Obama campaign is to the rest of the world, from Kenya to Italy to Germany. Obama's campaign is not a domestic issue; it's an international event.

Dwelling on that, I thought of Thomas Borstelmann's 2001 book The Cold War and The Color Line. Borstelmann argues that "in an era of maximum U.S. involvement abroad," it was impossible to insulate America's foreign relations from its race relations. During the Cold War, the United States sought anti-communist allies throughout the world, including non-white countries in the third world. Poor race relations in the United States made it difficult to appeal to those countries. Eisenhower acted in Little Rock, Arkansas within the context of his response to European neo-colonialism in the Suez Canal; JFK came out for civil rights in 1963 saying "When Americans are sent to Vietnam or West Berlin, we do not ask for whites only" (161). Borstelmann resists arguing that the Cold War caused the disintegration of the color line, concluding instead that "if the question is cast more broadly to ask what the relationship was between the waging of the Cold War and the historic dissolution of global white supremacy, the answer is more complicated and more significant" (269). The implication is there, though: the international context of the Cold War shaped the way U.S. presidents handled the question of civil rights at home.

Extending Borstelmann's analysis (so much so that he probably wouldn't recognize it), I'd like to suggest that the international context of the twenty-first century should shape the way Americans handle the question of our presidential choice. The United States continues to affect every corner of the world--that's why I didn't move to Canada after 2004, realizing that I couldn't run from the Bush Administration's influence. But the United States continues to depend on the rest of the world, as well, from the security of our financial system to the security of our persons when we travel abroad. The bottom line is that we need the good will and cooperation of the international community. We would be wise to select a president who will not only be able to work with foreign countries, but also inspire foreign peoples to believe in the United States and trust that the U.S. will act in good faith as a partner in world affairs. The signs I see from abroad point to Obama as the source of that sort of inspiration. Perhaps we should pay attention.




Blogger Unknown on 3/23/2008 6:16 PM:

GG, this is a really great first post -- thanks! I agree with you that Obama's appeal to international figures is extraordinary, though my contacts (okay, contact) abroad reports that Europeans really like Hillary Clinton too. I wonder why it is that Obama's so attractive to these folks?

I've written up something on Obama too, but I'm going to give HNN first crack at it before I post it here.


Anonymous Anonymous on 3/24/2008 2:02 AM:

Thanks for the compliment, Jeremy--I enjoyed writing the post, and thanks for giving me somewhere to put it! I look forward to reading your piece.

As for Europeans and Clinton, I'm taken back to when I studied in Berlin as an undergraduate. One day, the father of my host family giddily asked me to come into his office. He showed me a French video featuring a Bill Clinton puppet playing a video game in which the object was to score points by getting Video Bill to score as well. (just found it: -- fair warning: it's not work/kiddie-appropriate). My host father thought this was hilarious; he went on to say that he thought Clinton was a great president and that Americans were too up-tight. I agreed on the second point.