What Obama’s election means abroad

Barack Obama’s victory was met with euphoria in many nations by those who see him as restoring their faith in American ideals.

By , Staff writer

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    Jubilation in Sydney: Students at the University of Sydney react to the announcement that Barack Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States.
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As Wednesday dawned rainy and gray on the Champs- Élysées, a Parisian waiter spontaneously gave a fist pump and shouted, “Obamamania! Yeah!”

The world, which has tracked this American election like no other, sees Barack Hussein Obama as their president, their choice. And they see him through their own geographical and cultural prisms. To many, he represents the restoration of faith in American democratic ideals, of equality. The global euphoria over the election of the first black US president is also partly an expression of a populace that wants to believe that the same principles can apply to their lives, too.

Of course, as the son of a Kenyan goatherd, he’ll be Africa’s man at the White House, say Kenyans. But his appeal seems to transcend his heritage or his skin color. In Pakistan, for example, where politics has been the province of a wealthy elite, Mr. Obama is a powerful symbol for the dispossessed masses. Yes, he went to Harvard University. But also went to a Muslim elementary school in Indonesia. “They will say, ‘He is one of us,’” says Rasul Baksh Rais, a political scientist at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

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In Saudi Arabia, many young Saudis have been affectionately using his middle name, dubbing him “Abu Hussein,” or “Father of Hussein.” Here, he symbolizes a restoration of faith in the democratic freedoms that Saudis don’t yet have. “Saudis … did not really believe in the American version of democracy. How could they when all the presidents of the so-called ‘melting pot’ were Anglo,” writes Eman Al-Nafjan in her post on the Saudiwoman’s Weblog. “But now they are rubbing their eyes in disbelief.”

Similarly, Liu Na, a high school teacher in Beijing, China, said Wednesday that “his victory proves that there is real democracy in the United States.” She added, “He is not from a family of profound influence…. Obama has a very international background, which represents America’s special situation; so many citizens are immigrants. He relied on his own hard work and abilities to go so far.”

The Anti-Bush reaction

The global enthusiasm for Obama also has a lot to do with the way the world views America in the post-9/11 world. It’s a reaction. Even America’s allies had grown tired of the Bush administration’s dogged go-it-alone unilateralism in its war on terror, and later its appeals for help in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The current financial crisis, seeded in decades of laissez-faire regulation of American banks and hedge funds, also persuaded many that America needed new leadership. But while global citizens knew they couldn’t cast votes, it was clear that they felt they had as much at stake in the US presidential elections – and indeed, in the very idea of America as a democracy – as Americans do.

“His [Obama’s] message is so powerful for Africans: Yes we can,” says David Monyae, an independent political analyst in Johannesburg. “If an African-American can do it and become president, then people in Africa think, maybe black nations can also do it, and achieve prosperity, and people who are struggling for democracy in Zimbabwe can do it, and those in power can do what is in their power to change their countries for the better.”

In Europe, the meaning of Obama is tied up with the meaning of America in a very real sense. Obama has tapped what has long been a “universalist” strain in French thinking, political scientists say – in part, that all individuals are equal and owed that equality.

“Obama will bring a new trust in America around the world. We can now think of ourselves dreaming again with the Americans, dreaming about better relations, about a real future,” says Harold Herman, a lawyer in a Paris firm. “For eight years, we’ve not been able to think of ourselves in a real relationship with America, and it is not what we wanted. But now, new things are possible. The US, Europe, and Africa all have new possibilities for the future.”

Dominique Moisi, a leading Paris intellectual, echoes the euphoric mood: “This is a Copernican revolution in the image of the US.”

In Montreal’s Haitian community, Obama’s visage has become ubiquitious, as iconic as Che Guevara. Sixty-four-year-old Haitian immigrant Jean-Michel Baptiste says he’s sold hundreds of Obama T-shirts from in his small ethnic grocery store in recent weeks.

“I never ever thought I would live to see a historic moment like this,” said Mr. Baptiste Tuesday night. “A page in history has been written. A black has been elected as the president of the most powerful country in the world,” he said.

Even though Canada has a Haitian-born woman, Michaelle Jean, as its governor-general (a titular representative of the Queen of England), Baptiste says it’s not comparable. “Look, she was appointed to her position. Obama earned his position by merit. He was chosen by the American people to be their commander-in-chief.”

Louis Balthazar, a political scientist at the University of Quebec in Montreal, offers some insight into Obama’s popularity in Canada. “Firstly, he’s not [George W.] Bush. He represents something different. He’s not arrogant or domineering. His approach is respectful and cooperative.”

Professor Balthazar says that the jubilation in the Haitian community is understandable. Obama’s election sends a strong message throughout the world about minorities. “It’s a lesson to other countries, to us in particular. It’s an inspiration for us,” he says. Of late, there has been a growing backlash to cultural minorities in the province of Quebec.

“People are happy because he is of our color,” says Tariq Bashir Mohamed Kheir, a Sudanese engineer, sitting down to an early morning cup of tea in Khartoum, Sudan. “It will break the view of Americans.... They see blacks as inferior to whites….”

Laurent Joffrin, editor of the French daily newspaper Libération, wrote in his Wednesday column, “Obama’s story shows that identity is not a fact of nature that locks men up inside their births, but [is shaped] by a conscious adherence to democratic principles.... Does that seem hypothetical or abstract? Maybe. But for an hour, a day, let’s believe in it. For the first time in a long time, the New World deserves its name.”

End of multilateralism

In Beijing, Chinese leaders hope that Obama “will fundamentally shift from [President George] Bush’s unilateralism to multilateralism and give serious concern to cooperation with Europe, China, and Japan,” says Yan Xuetong, a professor of international relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Over the past eight years, he added, America has come to be seen abroad as “selfish, violent, and applying double standards. Obama can redeem America’s international image.”

For Russia, the election comes after several years of deteriorating relations rooted in differences over the invasion of Iraq, NATO’s expansion, and, more recently, in the August war between Russian and Georgia. But Elina Kirichenko, head of North American studies at the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow, says that Obama’s election is “a very important signal to the world. Americans are saying they want changes. The fact that Obama is young, and is not a child of the cold war, is very hopeful. During the campaign he seemed much more flexible than McCain and spoke more about common interests of the world’s peoples.”

In New Delhi, Teerna Khurana, a strategic consultant, lists all the ways that Obama could be a bad choice for India. He might reconsider Bush’s recently concluded deal to sell nuclear technology to India. Obama has also stated his desire to keep more jobs in the US, potentially undercutting India’s greatest economic success story – outsourcing. And his desire to find a solution to regional insecurity in Pakistan and Afghanistan could resurrect the issue of Kashmir.

Yet Ms. Khurana is overjoyed at Obama’s election. “It’s good for America, it’s good for the world,” she says, before adding, “the only question is if it’s good for India.”

In Tokyo, “many people feel relieved” by Obama’s victory, says Minoru Morita, a political analyst. “It proves the soundness of America. Many Japanese believe Obama will work with other world leaders to put the world on the right track.”

Skepticism in Iraq and Latin America

While change may be welcome in some quarters, Obama is met with skepticism in parts of the Arab world.

Rahim Sabri, owner of a popular breakfast restaurant in Baghdad, waves off Obama’s promise to end the war in Iraq. “Obama is also the face of the occupier,” he says. “US troops ... are at a crossroads: Either withdraw or stay forever.”

But some Iraqis see Obama as a symbol of change that will affect them. “Obama is different. This time I am optimistic,” says Jassim Attiya, a high school physics teacher. “We are fed up with colonial white faces; people want to end the US presence in Iraq.”

Many Mexicans worry that Obama has said he’d reconsider negotiating parts of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Still, “Obama winning means there is a real alternation in power,” says Dan Lund, an American pollster based in Mexico City. “They are fascinated by this.”

In Venezuela, residents there say they see parallels between the first black president in the US and their own president, Hugo Chávez, who represented a change from the old power elite.

In Bolivia, now governed by its first indigenous president, people see a similar parallel, says Eduardo Gamarra, a political scientist at Florida International University: “Bolivians and especially those who favor Evo Morales are looking at Obama with some expectations there.”

Contributing to this story: Zhang Yajun from Beijing; Caryle Murphy from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Scott Peterson from Baghdad; Robert Marquand from Paris; Fred Weir from Moscow; Nachammai Raman from Montreal; Sara Miller Llana from Mexico City; Heba Aly from Khartoum, Sudan; Rob Crilly from Nairobi, Kenya; Mark Sappenfield from New Delhi; Peter Ford from Obama, Japan, and Takehiko Kambayashi in Tokyo.

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