I am not sure Americans appreciate how remarkable it is that Obama drew a crowd of 200,000 in Berlin last week. Upon hearing the news, the press declared that Obama would suffer in the polls for presumptuous presidential posturing, but at the same time, admitted that McCain could hardly draw a crowd one twentieth that size—in Berlin or New York, for that matter. Needless to say, our current president might well draw such a crowd in Europe, but of protestors.
If you think about it, though, there is no global leader—save the Pope, perhaps, or Nelson Mandela—who could draw such a crowd. Not Sarkozy or Gordon Brown. Not Merkel or Berlusconi. Not Putin or Hu Jintao of China. No, on the current world stage, only Obama commands such a draw. And he is only a presidential candidate.
Obama's feat says two things. First, Europe is unbelievably smitten with this man—even more so than his homeland (Obama enjoys only a marginal lead over McCain in the polls, after all). Why is this? The answer, I believe, is indelibly tied to the second message of Obama's stellar draw abroad: the US is still tremendously popular in Europe.
Over the past eight years, it has often seemed as if continental Europe and the US were engaged in a prolonged divorce, highlighted by the conflict over the war in Iraq. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld famously dismissed France and Germany as 'the Old Europe' when they refused to back our invasion. France in particular was roundly denounced for betraying American liberation in World War II. Western Europe—excluding good old boy Tony Blair—was downright disloyal, ungrateful, even vindictive in the eyes of many Americans. Tensions flared as we revoked 'French' from our fries, and the French cheered on a native son who dared tow a McDonald's into the street. Now, however, we send a prospective president to France, and Sarkozy giggles with glee at the press conference.
Obama's remarkable reception in Europe proves that the US remains hugely popular there, and that Europe longs to embrace the US once again. It signals, furthermore, that Europe still looks to the US as the preeminent global power—or at least, the global power of preference. Russia and China are rising fast and have made no bones about their global aspirations. China clearly looks to its upcoming Olympics as a coming-out party on the world stage. But Russia and China are both totalitarian regimes with testy leadership, abysmal environmental and human rights records, and the world largely fears them.
The US, on the other hand, despite the damage wrought by this past administration, remains the global power of democracy, liberty and rule of law. To the Europeans, Obama represents a return of the global power they have loved and admired since World War II. In his very person, Obama epitomizes the values the US claims to stand for, and the goals it invokes willingly or not. For, here we send a prospective president to the world abroad, and he is a minority, self-made, raised by a single mother, bearing a Kenyan name.
Obama promises a return to ideological consistency, and redemption for a foundational democracy and pillar of the United Nations. Obama's US would roll back the expansive War on Terror and resume its natural place as the defender of human rights. Obama has suggested that he would opt for talking with America's enemies, and work to build bridges rather than burn them. He claims America will assume the forefront of sustainable energy research and development, as its prosperity and entrepreneurial energy allows.
Obama is hardly perfect on these accounts. But, by and large, he is a unifying, forward-looking figure rather than a divisive, nationalistic one. Europe recognizes this, and is relieved—and inspired. Polls around the globe reflect a similar sentiment.
I might go further and suggest that Europe's recent adulation of Obama signals that it is desperate to love the US again. Europe—and much of the world—yearns for a global leader who is just, fair, inspirational, who will look to global interests and not America's only, who will stand up to Russia and China—Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Venezuela—and not look hypocritical in so doing. In short, the world is ready for a leader who acknowledges America's unique power and responsibility on the global stage, and assumes its role with integrity.
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