Nothing could be more accurate today than the political chant from Chicago in 1968: "The Whole World is Watching." The level of interest in the upcoming U.S. presidential contest is incredibly high, greater than at any time in post-Cold War history. This is due to the rapid decline of America's reputation abroad during the Bush administration and to the hope that Democratic candidate Senator Barack Obama will restore America's image not with public relations, but with new internationalist policies.
In the past month, I have seen this phenomenon first hand. I have traveled to Syria, Peru and Bolivia as a speaker in the State Department's public diplomacy program. In each country, I heard from US embassy staff about how a record number of foreign journalists have requested travel to the US to cover the elections. I met with some of these reporters during my trips. I also encountered the same interest among students who attended my university lectures -- and of course, business and government leaders wanted to know in detail what an Obama presidency might mean.
In Syria, for example, students at the elite public policy school at Damascus University were fascinated to learn that Obama's middle name is Hussein, and that his mother's second husband was a Muslim who took young Barack to live for years in Indonesia. These young Syrians seemed amazed that the United States which many in the region see as the Great Satan would actually nominate such a person to be president -- and the thought that he might be the next president of the US was almost beyond belief. Of course, I got the not unexpected questions about whether Obama too would would be under the thumb of the Jewish lobby -- but overall, a sense of hope and optimism seemed to prevail. Almost every Syrian whom I met felt that Obama might bring a new beginning to US-Syrian relations, and perhaps usher in a genuine and wider Middle East peace.
In Peru and Bolivia, students not surprisingly were focused on their own region. They wanted to know if Obama would pay greater attention to Latin America -- perhaps rekindling the spirit of JFK and the Alliance for Progress. Government officials asked tougher questions about Obama and the Democratic Party's commitment to the global trading system, and whether US special interests might force Obama to close US markets to foreign goods. They also wanted to know what a President Obama might do about about drugs in Latin America, and about the danger that some states, perhaps even Bolivia, might come to be dominated by narco politics and anti-democratic groups. Of course, they were curious about Obama's offer to meet with Venezuela's populist leader Hugo Chavez, and about how US-Cuban relations might change under Obama.
As a Democrat and former US ambassador, I made it clear that I did not speak for the Obama campaign (I supported Senator Clinton in the primary), but that I knew and respected him, that he had studied at Occidental College where I hold a chair in diplomacy, and that many of my friends serve on his foreign policy team. I told audiences that my students at Occidental, inspired by Obama's success, recently completed a memo for the next president entitled Rebranding America (available online at: www.oxyworldwide.com) and that copies were sent to Obama and his team, as well as to McCain and his. Many students seemed intrigued about how they could "rebrand" their own nations.
- There are significant differences between Senator McCain and Senator Obama on the two most important issues of the campaign: the economy and the war in Iraq. In the past two decades, US foreign policy has become highly partisan and emotionally charged -- politics no longer stops at the water's edge as it largely did during the Cold War -- and it will matter a great deal, depending on which candidate is elected. If Obama becomes president, he will first focus on responsibly removing American troops from Iraq -- one of his key campaign promises and a signature commitment of his political career. He will also have to manage and ameliorate the economic distress of the American people. On both these key issues, Obama and McCain are light years apart.
I have no idea if my public diplomacy -- I also spoke last year in Kazakhstan, Chile and New Zealand, and I go to Australia his fall -- is having much impact, but my message is always clear and simple: I come in peace and bring fraternal greetings from progressive Americans. Barack Obama seems to embody this message, and to carry with him in the upcoming presidential contest the hopes not only of Americans, but of citizens in almost every country of the world. It is a heavy responsibility, and not to be taken lightly. If Obama can prevail, and can govern with strength, compassion and political wisdom, then he might turn out to be the first truly global president.
The whole world will be watching.