By Kris Kitto - 10/14/08 04:33 PM EDT
Today’s worldwide superstars from America don’t wear rhinestone jackets like Madonna or dunk basketballs for a living like Michael Jordan.
Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) have trumped their big-name counterparts, with the world’s citizens staring wide-eyed at this year’s presidential candidates instead of the stars of popular culture.
“There’s more interest [in this election] than I’ve seen in the last 40 years,” says Bob Guttman, former editor in chief of Europe magazine and the director of Johns Hopkins University’s Center on Politics in Foreign Relations.
While each candidate has an international element to his storyline, worldwide interest reaches far beyond McCain’s five and a half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, or Obama’s Kenyan father and time as a child in Indonesia.
International journalists and foreign affairs experts say the 2008 race to the White House is a story filled with devices that few humans can resist: an action-packed brand of political theater, a possible real-life confirmation of the American Dream, and the potential for revolutionary changes in how the world interacts.
Foreign interest also appears to be driven by anger with the Bush administration’s policies and by interest in Obama, the candidate much of the world would like to see win the U.S. contest.
In a September poll conducted for BBC Worldwide Service, the U.S.-based WorldPublicOpinion.org project found that every country in a 22-country survey preferred Obama as the next U.S. president.
The foreign interest in the election, and in Obama, has led to some controversy. Earlier this month, the Republican National Committee filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission that Obama had knowingly accepted campaign contributions from foreigners, which would violate U.S. law. The Obama campaign has said it tries to monitor donations carefully, and that it has started to request passport numbers from donors.
Many people see in Obama a potential for drastic change in U.S. foreign policy as well as a confirmation that the work-hard-and-achieve American Dream exists — even for racial minorities.
“What this points to is … that people are looking for change in U.S. foreign policy,” says Steven Kull, World-
Much of the foreign audiences also is not thrilled with President Bush.
“They really don’t like that man,” Guttman says. “And whoever wins — Obama, McCain — there’s going to be like a six-month honeymoon for him, because he’s not George Bush. People hope it’s going to enter a new era of friendliness.”
Al-Jazeera English journalist Riz Khan believes the international community is banking on Obama because it wants America to change the way it interacts with other countries.
“Everyone’s waiting for America to re-engage in the world,” says Khan, who hosts a show he compares to CNN’s “Larry King Live.” He travels regularly to London; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Singapore; Switzerland; India; and other parts of Europe and Asia.
Khan sees people being drawn in by an additional element of the election, though.
“Also, they feel that if America can elect a black man, it’s the sign of real change in America,” he says.
Lynch says an Obama win will confirm “the history that America is the country of racial liberation.”
If Obama wins, many Europeans would celebrate a racial victory they don’t see happening in their union anytime soon. “In no European polity do we have anything like an ethnic candidate poised for the highest office,” Lynch says. “There is no equivalent Obama phenomenon in Europe, nor is there likely to be.”
McCain is also popular in at least some foreign countries. Georgetown University international affairs Professor Robert Leiber says Israelis are more familiar with McCain and therefore more supportive of him.
Germans have become acquainted with the GOP candidate through his annual trip to Munich for a defense conference, Guttman says. Lynch says, in general, Republicans tend to be more popular in Eastern Europe than in Western Europe, a pattern that may favor McCain this year.
Russians are on the fence between the two candidates, according to Rose Gottemoeller, a Moscow-based expert for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“They have been endlessly debating, both before the Georgia crisis and after, which of the two candidates would be better for the relationship,” she says in an e-mail.
Another contributing factor to the higher international interest in this year’s presidential election is exposure, as the candidates’ messages are being heard abroad even more than in past years. Obama held a rally in Berlin in July, and the two parties’ international arms, Republicans Abroad and Democrats Abroad, have grown their chapters, increased the number of international events they hold and rolled out bigger ad campaigns in international media outlets.
But beyond increased exposure, international citizens are hooked on the presidential election, experts say, for a simpler reason: good, old-fashioned drama.
“It’s compelling in a way that I can’t remember an American election being compelling,” says Timothy Lynch, a University of London lecturer and the author of After Bush: The Case for Continuity in American Foreign Policy. As far as getting wrapped up in what these candidates symbolize, “We’re subject to the same thing many Americans are,” he says.
In India, the compelling storyline came in the Democratic primary race between Obama and former opponent Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), says Sopan Joshi, an India-based magazine editor who was a fellow at The Washington Post earlier this year.
“A lot of people in India won’t be able to understand how, after the kind of bickering in the public between Obama and Hillary, [that] Hillary will come onto the same stage and put her force behind Obama,” he says.
The American presidential election: Coverage from around the world
The newspaper Extra found a woman claiming to be the Brazilian model whom GOP presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) wrote about in his 1999 book Faith of My Fathers.
“There I met and began a romance with a Brazilian fashion model, and gloried in the envy of my friends,” he wrote.
Extra’s story attracted worldwide attention. Versions of the article ran in newspapers in Peru, Argentina and the United States, including The Miami Herald and the New York Daily News.
Extra interviewed 77-year-old Maria Gracinda Teixeira de Jesús, a former model who said she had a short romance with McCain while the naval officer was in Rio de Janeiro in the late 1950s.
“He kissed really well,” she told Extra.
In a piece in the Dublin-based Evening Herald, Irish reporter Chris Donoghue wrote about being amazed at the popularity of Barack Obama.
“I’ve been back in Ireland about three weeks after covering the election race in the U.S. for a bit, and it’s amazing how hooked everyone here is on Barack Obama,” Donoghue wrote.
“I’ve discovered over the last few weeks at home that it’s sacrilege to say anything bad about Obama even though, from an Irish point of view, John McCain’s policies would be better for us,” he wrote.
Donoghue told the story of his insulting a neighbor simply by saying he thought John McCain would win the election. He also argued that an Obama presidency would mean the exodus of 100,000 Irish jobs and the deportation of 50,000 undocumented Irish immigrants in the U.S.
El Comercio, the national newspaper based in Quito, compares Obama to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Bolivian President Evo Morales.
“It is a fact that, at moments, Obama’s rhetoric resembles that of many Latin American politicians,” Danilo Arbilla wrote in an opinion piece. “Obama waves a flag of change, similar to what has happened in many countries in South America with several candidates of the new era — many of whom are now presidents.”
“Watching the U.S. presidential election from the Arab world is a confusing vocation,” wrote syndicated columnist Rami Khouri in the Beirut-based newspaper The Daily Star.
“At one level, American democracy is an impressive, vibrant, often stunning phenomenon that permits any citizen — certified idiots and genuine geniuses alike — to seek and assume public office, and control the destiny of society,” he wrote.
“At another level, America also provides a powerful argument against a totally open, unregulated democratic system, because it allows the volatile and sometimes infantile emotional psyche of a bare majority of citizens to determine the exercise of immense power.”
Khouri gave three examples of how American politicians have a power that reverberates around the world: the economic crisis, the war in Iraq and the larger war on terror.
Ziya Meral, a reporter for the Istanbul-based Turkish Daily News, wrote about “a serious irony” in the “unquestioning Obama love we see in the world, especially in Europe.”
Meral said history has shown us that politicians who promise change can rarely live up to such a proclamation, mostly because the task is too large for one person.
McCain seemed more rational, Meral wrote, until he picked Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice presidential candidate.
“His choice of vice president reflects the shallow and dangerous end of American politics,” Meral wrote. “For the life of me, the image of a bulldog with lipstick in one of the highest posts of a superpower scares me to death.”