Could an Obama Win Restore America's Global Image?

Anti-Americanism runs rampant worldwide; Obama presidency would change that.

October 27, 2008, 8:15 AM

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, Oct. 28, 2008 — -- If the world could vote, Barack Obama would win by a landslide.

He'd take 78 percent of the vote in France, 72 percent in Germany, 70 percent in Canada and 61 percent in Japan, according to global newspaper polls and Harris Interactive, a market research firm in Rochester, N.Y.

Beneath those numbers, running parallel to Obama-mania, is a shifting global view of the United States.

One week before Election Day, the world is revising its opinion of America. After a drop of confidence in the United States, presidential candidate Barack Obama has revived the U.S. brand, exporting a vision of American renewal to a world watching the election with unprecedented interest.

"He's just stirred the imagination of ordinary people," said Daniel Kinnear, a veteran diplomat based in South Africa. "For a country like South Africa that is coming out of a legacy of apartheid and is still dealing with its legacy, Obama remains a sign of hope. There's an incredible romanticism of having a black American on the forefront of change in the United States."

"If Obama does win, this could also be the moment when the world stops hating America," Vir Sanghvi, an Indian columnist, wrote in the Hindustan Times. "The world will feel engaged by an Obama presidency. By electing Obama they have the chance to earn ... goodwill, to transform their country's image, and to finally stem the rising tide of global anti-Americanism."

Since President Bush took office in 2000, approval of the United States has dropped, along with its soft power -- indirect influence by which the United States can advance its policy goals without the use of force or coercion.

Through wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, plus the ineffable war on terror, America's battle tactics have cut into its moral standing abroad.

Europe experienced the rise of "friendly fire anti-Americanism" when protests against America rocked longstanding U.S. allies such as France, Spain and Germany, where roughly one in three people now hold a favorable view of the United States -- significantly fewer since the war in Iraq.

In this year's Pew Global Attitudes poll, the United Kingdom was the only European country surveyed in which a majority of people, 53 percent, expressed a positive view of the United States.

Economic might, usually a given for the United States, has withered, as most countries begin to believe that the U.S. economy is having a negative effect on theirs, experts say.

"There's a lot of anger that this financial crisis was made in America and that other countries are going to be paying the bills for the casino culture on Wall Street," said Jeff Kingston, a professor at Temple University's Japan campus.

Whether Obama can solve those problems -- and whether he wins -- he is the man of the hour to a world yearning for a clean break from the past eight years. That "change" is Obama's foremost talking point and has aligned him in timing and tone with the global zeitgeist.

Obama's marquis moment as a global statesman was a July 24, 2008, speech in Berlin that drew 200,000 cheering Germans at the pinnacle of a trip that also took him through Kuwait, Iraq and Israel.

Karsten Voigt, the German government's coordinator for trans-Atlantic relations, told reporters that "Germany is Obamaland. Germans see the African-American senator as a kind of mixture of JFK and Martin Luther King Jr."

In the Berlin speech, Obama emphasized terrorism, security, nuclear nonproliferation and climate change as campaign priorities, all topics that resonate powerfully with a global audience.

Obama has been similarly embraced by the masses in other European states. Among the French public, only 1 percent would want Sen. John McCain as president, according to a poll by France 24, a news and current affairs television channel. In France, Obama's rise revived the discourse about racial minorities there, where blacks and Arabs have long complained of being politically marginalized.

In Japan, where approval of the United States has dropped 11 percentage points since last year -- roughly half of Japanese people disapprove of America -- Obama has a strong fan base. The epicenter of enthusiasm is the coastal enclave of Obama City, Japan. The local population of 32,000 has embraced the senator, who happens to share their city's name.

"Mr. Obama does not feel like a stranger to us," said Seiji Fujihara, secretary general of a gathering known as the Group that Supports Barack Obama Voluntarily.

"We both carry the name Obama, and he is like a relative. If Mr. Obama becomes the president, we will form a delegation and try to visit him at the White House. That would be awesome."

Kingston said, "People feel that if America is ready to elect a black man president, it's a good sign that America is living up to its own ideals.

"For the Japanese, who have long felt the sharp edge of American racism, this is a welcome thing."

In China, the rationale behind support for Obama varies.

"I prefer Obama to be the president, because he is a black man," said Zhou Yan, a student of diplomacy and international studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University. "It will be very revolutionary, because it means black people have ... equal rights with white people in America."

Shi Yinghong, director of American Studies at People's University in Beijing, said that the global financial crisis has turned more Chinese attention to the U.S. election.

"Chinese were generally neutral. Now they more favor Obama over McCain," Yinghong said.

"If there were no financial crisis people would be more concerned for the colors of the candidates. But now overwhelmingly ... hopes and fears are conditioned with the financial crisis. Less people are concerned about black or white."

Around the world, non-Americans eager to weigh in are expressing themselves through Web sites like Voices without Votes and The World Wants Obama.

In Israel, fans of the Illinois senator are reaching out to quell fears of an Obama presidency through a video called "Israelis for Obama," which has been posted on YouTube and at the Jewish Journal.

Halfway through the video a handful of Israelis chant his middle name, Hussein, as if to debug it of any stigma.

In other corners of the Middle East, a potential Obama win would help restore the image of America among allies and adversaries.

"I think someone like Obama would make a huge difference," said Hafed Al Ghewell, a Libyan-American living in Dubai.

"It would be an incredibly pleasant statement to the world from the United States, both that the U.S. is still the most capable country of correcting itself and the country that is able to go beyond the expectations of the world."

Al Ghwell and others say the Arab world is watching with caution, even as the widely popular candidate commands a broad lead over the Arizona senator in domestic polls.

"There's a fear that the majority of American whites aren't ready for a black president, this notion of will they 'let' him win?" said Emile Hokayem, political editor of The National newspaper in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. "Could a black man really get to the very top? People are pretty puzzled by it." .

Hokayem said that in the Arab world, the election invokes a conspiratorial view of U.S. politics, one he thinks will be reinforced if Obama loses.

"Middle-Easterners have a very dark image of the policy system in Washington," Hokayem said. "Somehow you have big players -- mostly white guys, a couple of them part of the Zionist lobby, and a few others, defense contractors and the oil industry -- who determine the outcome."

Iran and Venezuela, two foreign policy bogeymen of the Bush administration, recognize that a President Obama could drastically reroute the U.S. approach to their governments. Obama has said that as president he would engage in talks with both countries, fueling excitement for the prospect of normalized relations.

"Most of my relatives say they're sick of the old Washington system," said Sina Tabesh, 24, who follows U.S. politics from his home in Tehran. "They're very optimistic about Obama."

In a show of support, Tabesh changed his facebook profile picture to a portrait of Obama.

Others in Iran have seen enthusiasm tempered as Obama filled out his platform on Middle East policy.

"People thought most highly of him when his first biography was translated into Persian," said Mohammad Marandi, Professor of American Studies at Tehran University. "The AIPAC talk changed the way Iranians thought of him."

In that speech at the June policy conference of AIPAC, or the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobby, Obama called Iran the greatest threat to Israel and to the peace and stability of the region.

Still, said Nader Talebzadeh, a filmmaker and public intellectual in Tehran, there's a "preference toward Obama, because of the hawkish attitudes of McCain and Palin.

"They hope that he'll be a rational man who won't be swayed by irrational pressure, pressures that would push countries and the world into war. If Obama doesn't become president, then we're going to gear up for turbulent waters."

Talebzadeh points to a racial ripple in Iranian public opinion: Many in the Islamic Republic identify with black Americans and the civil rights movement, its symbolism of an oppressed minority pushing back against the mainstream.

"There's great respect for figures like Martin Luther King Jr.," Talebzadeh said. "There's great sympathy for African-Americans in Iran. During the hostage crisis, they were among the first released," a reference to the U.S. Embassy takeover in 1979.

The most lethal form of anti-Americanism that has grown up during the Bush era is the form that lives in pockets of the Muslim world, fueling violent jihad. The next four years of battle for hearts and minds will pit the U.S. president against the ideologues of al Qaeda, inspired by but not necessarily under the direct command of Osama bin Laden.

A potential Obama win, say experts, would undercut some of the talking points and emotional arguments that demonize the United States to the benefit of Muslim extremists.

"Barack Obama must be unsettling for Mr. bin Laden. An African-American with a father born in Kenya and a childhood spent partly in Indonesia presents a very different face to the world," wrote Joe Nye of Harvard University.

"Certainly, the election of the first African-American as president would do wonders to restore the soft power that the Bush administration has squandered over the past eight years. That is why Mr. Obama is such a threat to Mr. bin Laden: on the crucial soft power skills of emotional intelligence, vision and communication, Mr. Obama has the edge? that must be giving Mr. bin Laden a headache."

Hafed Al Ghwell of the Dubai School of Government said the projected image of a President Obama would deflate the extremist cliche of America as a crusader state, targeting Muslims at home and abroad.

"That's the jihadists' image of America that they've been able not only to portray but to solidify by using the policies of President Bush," Al Ghwell said. "Ironically, Bush solidified their arguments in the region. It's no longer going to be valid with somebody like Obama in office.

"He will take that sting out of any sort of sense that people feel that [policies] are racially or religiously or culturally motivated policy. People will not see them in terms of a white man trying to impose his rule."

Just south of American voting booths, in Mexico, perceptions of a racially polarized election have fed similar fears.

"People in Mexico really want Barack to win," said Jose Cohen, a journalist in Mexico City. "There's a fear in Mexico that when white Americans get into the polls they won't vote for the black guy.

"You hear people being skeptical of whether the extreme right will let him win, saying it's never going to happen. The extreme right will never allow a black man to be president."

In Mexico, visions of the American dream -- a shot at working one's way up the economic ladder -- have paled with the financial downturn. Cohen said that 1,500 people are crossing the border back into Mexico as job opportunities grow scarce. Mexico has felt neglected by the Bush administration, punished for opposing the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

"Bush blew us off the rest of his presidency," Cohen said.

The desire for change has driven support for Obama, overpowering an initial bias rooted in Mexico's own racial fears.

"At first, when he was contending with Hillary Clinton, Mexicans worried, felt that Hillary would be more for Mexico and Barack more for blacks," Cohen said. "Now people are starting to see it as an advantage that he's from a minority."

Meanwhile, Venezuela, an Iranian ally with strong political and commercial ties to the Islamic Republic, has been a stalwart American foe during the Bush era. Widespread admiration for Obama among Venezuelans could muddy, if not derail, the harsh rhetoric between Caracas and Washington given an Obama win.

"For some time [President Hugo] Chavez would have to cool off the fight with America," said Fernando Juaregui, a Venezuelan journalist.

"The fact our president is [biracial], like Obama, helps people in Venezuala relate to his background. There's respect that he's a self-made person."

Elsewhere in Latin America, tattered relationships and perceptions of the United States are opening to revision in light of a potential Obama presidency.

"The Cuban people are waiting in trepidation, hoping very much that Obama will win the election," said Osmel Prieto Frometa, who owns a guest house in Baracoa, Cuba. "Obama is a beacon of hope for us."

Obama has vowed to normalize U.S.-Cuban relations in exchange for steps toward political reform.

"With Obama, things will change," Frometa said. "I'm sure he will lift the embargo. Reagan, Bush and McCain are all the same, but Obama is different: He understands Latin Americans because he is black."

Whoever wins the U.S. election likely faces a honeymoon period of high public opinion, coming in on the heels of an unpopular president. Experts say a McCain win would disappoint legions of Obama fans, who have come to see the candidate as the projection of their diverse hopes and policy goals.

"I think it would be a very deep disappointment," Hokayem, the Abu Dhabi-based political analyst, said. "It will also confirm some of the worst prejudices against the U.S."

But while Obama is the clear global choice, pinning the world's hopes on one man opens the risk of unfulfilled hopes and mismanaged expectations.

"What's going to happen is once he takes office the people like Hugo Chavez are going to stand back and wait," Mexican journalist Cohen said of a potential President Obama. "It's going to be a different thing when he takes office and has to make tough decisions."

Hokayem said, "Who is elected is going to have to do a lot of damage control first and a lot of reassuring.

"Policy will change, but it will not change as drastically as people think. While Obama will have some room for innovation, in other ways he'll be constrained by realities on the ground," he said.

"U.S. foreign policy is more than just the character or the background of the president."

Cao Jun, Ammu Kannampilly, Christel Kucharz, Beth Loyd, Noriko Namiki, Gabriel O'Rorke, Donna Sherrington and Stephanie Sy contributed to this report.