Foreign Policy Blogs

Why The World Wants Obama

After a few months of observing the global phenomenon that is Obamania, I thought I would put forth a few theories on why Senator Barack Obama is so strongly favored as the next US President by people living outside the US.

First, a note on why people outside the US care about the US election at all. After all, they can't vote, why bother paying attention? The simple answer is: what the US 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 US commands everyone falls into line.

Rather, the economic, political and military influence that the US has in the world, 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 affect 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 is going to effect you, why choose Senator Obama over Senator McCain? And to such a great degree? Here's a list of five factors I see contributing to foreign publics’ preference for 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 factor flows from the first: Senator Obama is, plain and simple, not George W. Bush. Then again, neither is John McCain. But thanks to the American political spectrum being so narrow, it's safe to say that Senator Obama represents the antithesis of the current President.

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

First 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).

Second, electing Senator Obama could reaffirm foreign publics' faith in another element of American society: its ability to reason. Back in 2004, to many people abroad, Americans failed to choose the right candidate. Many abroad 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 the US'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, to a certain degree foreign publics lost faith in the American people to make good choices.

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

My 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 even trying. His international upbringing makes him into a chameleon, from which foreign publics can pick and choose which “Obama” they identify with most‚ the Muslim, Asian, or African, etc. The monkey idol key chain is a great example of this phenomenon.

(If only, instead of appealing to people across Asia, Africa and Europe, Senator Obama's chameleon identity could appeal to people across “middle America.” Then it would really be magical!)

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 the changes he has promised he could loose their support and a considerable amount of US soft power‚ power that is already on the wane.

But, as I discussed above, there are some positive changes in people's perceptions of the US that could come about even if Senator Obama doesn't act on his promises. That is, if Americans make the “right” choice…



Melinda Brouwer

Melinda Brower holds a Masters degree in Global Politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She received her bachelor's degree in Political Science and Spanish at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She received a graduate diploma in International Relations from the University of Chile during her tenure as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar. She has worked on Capitol Hill, at the State Department, for Foreign Policy magazine and the American Academy of Diplomacy. She presently works for an internationally focused non-profit research organization in Washington, DC.