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Obama and the world

The best hope for America’s image in this situation is the election of a President who slams Wall Street and the big multi-nationals; who promises regulation and who disowns the excesses of the last decade, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Oct 26, 2008 15:42 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

All of us, or so the saying goes, should have a vote in the American Presidential election because the results affect the rest of the world almost as much as they affect America itself. If we did, in fact, have such a vote, it’s quite clear who we would vote for. Poll after poll tells us that the world prefers Barack Obama to John McCain.

And now, it looks as though America may agree. There are the skeptics: people say that Americans are too shy of admitting that they would never vote for a black man to opinion poll agencies, but that when it comes to the crunch, they will chose the white guy. And there’s my theory, advanced on this page, some months ago, that Americans are uneasy with an ethnic President.

But there are too many polls for us to deny the obvious. Unless something goes drastically wrong in the next couple of weeks, Barack Obama will be the next President of the United States.

Obviously, this will be an epochal moment for America. As late as the mid-sixties, black people were forced to use segregated toilets in the American South and refused seats on buses. Now, only 40 years later, an African-American will sit in the Oval office.

But if Obama does win, this could also be the moment when the world stops hating America. Surveys tell us that global anti-Americanism has now grown to an all-time high. At a time when their country’s global authority has been eroded by eight years of capricious governance by George W Bush, easily the stupidest man to occupy the White House in many decades (even Gerald Ford was brighter), and their economy has gone to the toilet, Americans need the goodwill of the world more than

By electing Obama they have the chance to earn that goodwill, to transform their country’s image, and to finally stem the rising tide of global anti-Americanism.

In the long run, that might do them more good than anything Obama can achieve in the domestic policy sphere.

Some positive global consequences of an Obama victory are:

The Black factor: For centuries, America has fed the world a lie about its essential character. It has told us it is the land of free where it is ‘self-evident’ that “that all men are created equal” etc. etc. For much of this time, it has restricted these freedoms to white males. The framers of the Constitution kept slaves. Blacks had to fight to be regarded as fully human. And the country itself was founded on land-grab and genocide: the early settlers massacred the Indians and stole their lands before condemning the surviving native Americans to second-class citizenship.

Unfortunately for America, its huge propaganda machine has never succeeded in fully obscuring this lie. And that’s one reason why even though much of the world loves American popular culture, an air of suspicion has always haunted the global view of America. When things go wrong — as they have over the last few years — this suspicion turns into downright hostility.

By electing a black man, Americans finally have a chance to the tell the world that their country has changed: it is now truly, an equal society.

International outlook: When Bill Clinton was President, we had a sense that he was a global citizen, engaged with the world. George Bush, on the other hand, strikes most non-Americans as being parochial, small-minded and unmindful of the concerns of the rest of the world.

John McCain, to his credit, is more international but his campaign is hamstrung by the appalling Sarah Palin, a woman who only got her first passport a few years ago so she could go on an official trip and whose idea of a global perspective is looking at Russia ‘on a clear day’ from Alaska.

Obama comes across as truly international. He is an African-American in the full sense of the term: his father was African (Kenyan) and his mother was American (white.) He grew up in Indonesia, has travelled the world, cares about global affairs (he was quick to issue a statement about India’s moon mission a few days ago) and conveys the impression that his concerns extend beyond the American heartland.

All that is certain to work to America’s benefit. The world will feel engaged by an Obama Presidency.

Muslims and Iraq: Sending himself up at a roast two weeks ago, Obama joked that whoever gave him his middle name clearly had no idea that he would run for President one day. It’s a good joke but it also reminds us that the next President of the United States could well be a man called Hussein.

What’s more encouraging is that even though some of his opponents have tried to cash in on his Muslim middle name, referring to him as ‘Barack Hussein Obama’ (rather as Narendra Modi used to refer to ‘James Michael Lyngdoh”), America seems largely unmoved.

This is certain to have an effect on the psyche of the world’s Muslims many of whom now loathe America with intensity. It’s easy to demonize Bush’s America if you are a Muslim; less easy if America is led by a black man with Muslim middle name who grew up in the world’s largest Muslim country.

On Iraq, Obama’s record has been better than nearly everybody else’s. Unlike say, Hillary Clinton, he voted against the war arguing, sensibly, that America should devote its energy to rooting out Al Qaeda and the Taliban from Afghanistan (and Pakistan), not in a pointless engagement in Iraq which has destroyed that hapless country, encouraged fanatics to turn to terrorism and now, devastated the US economy as well.

His views are pretty much the views of the rest of the world as well and so, are bound to find resonance.

The economic crisis: It hasn’t happened yet but I think it’s only a matter of time. As the global economic crisis begins to bite, as factories close, as people are rendered unemployed and as the world’s middle classes see their savings wiped out, there will be a tendency to blame America for the world’s financial misfortunes. After all, who can deny that this crisis was caused by Wall Street’s greed and the failure of the US government to regulate its mammoth private financial institutions?

The best hope for America’s image in this situation is the election of a President who slams Wall Street and the big multi-nationals; who promises regulation and who disowns the excesses of the last decade.
Bush can’t do that: his administration allowed the crisis to happen, even helped make it possible. Nor can McCain, whose traditional Republican ties to big business restrict his room for maneuver and who clearly doesn’t understand what’s going on anyway.

Only Obama has the ability and credibility to tell the world that America made mistakes and that, he will fix them.
Education: Even those who support Obama will concede that he has a tendency to come off as too clever and loves to lecture.

In America, this is seen as a disadvantage. In the rest of the world, it is a huge advantage.

Most of us are so fed up of the folksy simplicity of American politicians that we long for an American President who has an IQ higher than Mickey Mouse’s or Goofy’s.

McCain’s probably a bright guy but his slow, soft, ingratiating (every sentence is addressed to “my friends”) delivery does not suggest mental agility. Sarah Palin actually makes a virtue out of her ignorance, passing this off as an All-American value. Asked by interviewer Katie Couric which papers she read, she couldn’t name one. Asked to name a single Supreme Court decision apart from the famous Roe v. Wade, she had no idea.

The world is terrified by the prospect of having the most powerful country on the planet led by a moron. We’ve already seen the havoc eight years of Bush have wrought. So, on balance, we don’t mind if the next US President is an intellectual show off. Hell, we may even like it!

The big change: If Obama does win, as seems likely, then it will serve notice to the world that America is finally ready to turn its back on the past: on centuries of discrimination; on pointless wars; on parochialism and small-mindedness; on the economics of greed; and on years of refusing to understand the planet.

Is it any surprise that the rest of the world hopes that he will win?

First Published: Oct 25, 2008 21:37 IST