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With just a few days remaining until the U.S. elections, I wonder not so much how they will be interpreted as who will be doing the interpreting. There are plenty of observers and commentators, of course, most of them connected in some way to national and international mass media. But there appear to be few media figures, at least in the English-speaking world, who seem seasoned, dispassionate and wise.

Among those who remember his weekly commentaries for the BBC, who would not yearn for another Letter from America by Alistair Cooke, telling us that despite financial crisis, terrorism and war, that all is not lost? From that generation we still have Daniel Schorr doing commentaries for NPR, but his weekly conversations with Scott Simon are mainly for a domestic U.S. audience. Are there not any journalistic de Tocquevilles, who can leaven journalistic commentary with something more than a “magic map” of “red states” and “blue states?”

This question has relevance not only because foreign public opinion of the United States is so low, but because foreign publics see themselves as having a critical interest in the outcome of the vote. This blog, and others like it, have chronicled how non-Americans would vote if they had a chance. The answer is, perhaps not surprisingly, that they would vote for Barack Obama.

But the fact that the overseas polls are so lopsided in Obama's favor is more than just a referendum on the foreign policies of Obama and John McCain. Both candidates favor more diplomacy, as the Washington Post reminds us today. The lopsided foreign preference for Barack Obama is part cultural preference, part referendum on the way that the two candidates have treated foreign public opinion. One candidate reached out to it, the other derided such efforts as the actions of an “international celebrity.”
Those who were watching and listening from abroad at that moment understood that the McCain campaign had chosen to play the “elite card” — insinuating that Obama was too “foreign,” not “American” enough, and that a candidate beloved overseas should be therefore somehow suspect at home.

No matter who wins next week, America's image as formed in the course of this election campaign will need repair. Officials of the outgoing Bush administration will not be able to do it, and the embassy officials — public diplomats who deal with foreign media and publics — will not be authorized to do it until the new Administration takes office in January. So we will be dependent on international communicators — journalists perhaps — to help wipe the slate clean for a new beginning without sweeping all the bad news under the rug. Too bad Alistair Cooke isn't around to help.



Mark Dillen

Mark Dillen heads Dillen Associates LLC, an international public affairs consultancy based in San Francisco and Croatia. A former Senior Foreign Service Officer with the US State Department, Mark managed political, media and cultural relations for US embassies in Rome, Berlin, Moscow, Sofia and Belgrade, then moved to the private sector. He has degrees from Columbia and Michigan and was a Diplomat-in-Residence at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins. Mark has also worked for USAID as a media and political advisor and twice served as election observer and organizer for OSCE in Eastern Europe.

Areas of Focus:
US Government; Europe; Diplomacy