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America Votes, and the World is Riveted

Author: Robert McMahon, Editor
February 22, 2008

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The world may or may not be economically “decoupling” from the United States as some have suggested. But it remains heavily invested, emotionally at least, in U.S. presidential politics. From Mexico City to Mumbai, media closely cover the presidential nominating contests as they play out across the United States. There is keen interest in the three front-runners, Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and Republican John McCain, described by Britain’s Independent as an “ All-American cast of characters.” Underlying the spectator-sport enthusiasm is also concern about who will replace George W. Bush at a time when confidence in U.S. leadership on a variety of global topics has plummeted from Europe (PDF) to the Muslim world.

Sports metaphors of a kind not common in U.S. coverage abound in foreign coverage of the party primaries. The Hindu, an Indian daily, evokes a classic cricket match. British scholar Timothy Garton Ash likens it to the World Cup soccer tourney (LAT). McCain’s come-from-behind effort has been a popular story line. But generating the most interest now is the historic struggle between Obama—the most successful black candidate ever—and Clinton—who has advanced farther than any woman candidate—to gain their party’s nod for the presidency. German interest, detailed recently by Spiegel, is typical of the global obsession.

The prospect of presidency for Obama, the son of a Kenyan-born Muslim who spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, has fascinated international observers. East Africans are especially caught up in his candidacy, as President Bush discovered in his recent visit to Tanzania (WashPost), which borders Kenya. An op-ed in the Dubai-based Khaleej Times worries about the pressure Obama faces because of his call for direct negotiations with Iran. Israeli press, meanwhile, closely follow the to and fro over the credibility of Obama’s positions, and advisers, on Israeli-Palestinian issues (Haaretz).

Obama’s primary victories produced a flurry of international analysis about the symbolic importance of his candidacy. French analyst Dominique Moisi says an Obama presidency would result in a “Copernican revolution” for America’s image (DailyStar). The Economist concurs, but cautions that the challenges a President Obama would face would be no less difficult: “[T]he Middle East will not heal, just because a president’s second name is Hussein.”

Symbolism aside, many commentators outside the United States are chiefly interested in their own countries’ stake in the U.S. race. In the midst of the candidates’ debates last fall, Mexican President Felipe Calderon urged calm on the immigration issue, saying the contenders should “stop taking Mexicans as symbolic hostages (BBC) in their speeches and strategies.” Days prior to announcing his resignation as Cuba’s president, Fidel Castro issued a long riposte to McCain (Granma), in response to the senator’s charge on the campaign trail that “a couple of Cubans” took part in the torture of American POWs held with him in Hanoi. “The years of prison and the injuries that you received as a consequence of your attacks on Hanoi do not excuse you from your moral duty to the truth,” Castro wrote.

In China, experts have expressed concern about the human rights and trade policies of the Democratic front-runners (ChiTrib). European foreign policy analyst Francois Heisbourg, meanwhile, cautions that excitement on the continent for a Democratic president should be tempered by the trajectory of U.S. foreign policy post-9/11. “The transatlantic relationship,” he writes, “has ceased to be pivotal for the US: the mission will determine the coalition, militarily, strategically and politically” (FT).

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