Obama-McCain: the World’s Main Event

Here’s a first conversational stab at the point that Obama vs. McCain — while it’s not the world’s election — is a world event like no US presidential campaign before it. This is partly the Web effect, which puts millions, maybe billions, of people in the churn of daily information about the campaign. And it’s even moreso the resonance of Barack Obama, who’s been dubbed “Germany’s favorite politician at the moment” (in Germany) and “definitively… the candidate of Europe” (in Portugal), as Shmuel Rosner of Ha’aretz wrote in Slate this Spring.

It’s different and remarkable, furthermore, as the young editor of openUSA, Kanishk Tharoor, remarks in our conversation, that interest abroad in US politics seems based less on calculations of US foreign policy toward nations and continents like China, say, or Africa or the Middle East. The fascination seems rather with “underlying issues like race, like generation, like globalism.” And the provocative effect of the fascination shows up, for example, in a piece written for openUSA from India that asks: “Can there be a Muslim Obama?” Or as Anthony Barnett of openDemocracy puts it in this conversation from London, Obama “unlocks possibility. He unlocks the imagination. If he could do that, what could I do? What could we do?”

Anthony Barnett

There’s a challenge here for people like Anthony Barnett (and me!) who came to flinch at “American exceptionalism” when Bush-Cheney made it stand for unilateralism and reckless war, but who must be intrigued again with the “only in America” dimensions of, yes, Barack Obama. Here’s the Barnett version:

My views are shifting slightly. I don’t think America is any longer the “indispensable nation.” What Madeline Albright was saying was about power politics: America as Numero Uno — the iron fist and the aircraft carrier behind it. Obviously America is a mightily powerful and economically influential nation, and will remain so. But this sense that it will dominate the century through a combination of wealth and force has, I think, been broken by Iraq — whatever now happens in Iraq. The world doesn’t want it; it’s contemptuous of it. And therefore an element of normalization, and of America becoming a country like other countries, is very healthy and will be very welcome.

But there’s another aspect of this, which is that there was always something about America which said: this is what it’s like to be a modern country. The world will be like us. We are the future. Progress resides here. And for the rest of the world — certainly after 1945, essentially when I grew up — the American way of life, its freedom, its wealth, its liberties, its music… this is what it was to be a modern person. This is no longer the case. For the last ten or 15 years young people have not seen America as what what it’s like to be a modern person. Obama, however, does say something like… “well, it really is an open political system in some ways. Perhaps this recreates a potential for people saying: yeah, right, we want to be like that. America means it. It talks the talk about democracy, freedom and human rights, and actually is delivering. It means it.” That does represent a potential re-lighting of the American example.

Anthony Barnett of openDemocracy in conversation with Kanishk Tharoor of openUSA and Chris Lydon of Open Source, June 18, 2008

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