Roger Cohen Obama in Orbit

Barack Obama, in many ways, is where the world is going. He embodies interconnectedness where the Bush administration has projected separateness.
Von Roger Cohen

Little that is certain can be said about the US election a year from now, but one certainty is this: about 6.3 billion people will not be voting even if they will be affected by the outcome.

That’s the approximate world population outside the United States. If nothing else, President Bush has reminded them that it’s hard to get out of the way of US power. The wielding of it, as in Iraq, has whirlwind effects. The withholding of it, as on the environment, has a huge impact.

No wonder the view is increasingly heard that everyone merits a ballot on Nov. 4, 2008.

That won’t happen, of course. Even the most open-armed multilateralist is not ready for hanging chads in Chad. But the broader point of the give-us-a-vote itch must be taken: the global community is ever more linked. American exceptionalism, as practiced by Bush, has created a longing for new American engagement.

Renewal is about policy; it’s also about symbolism. Which brings us to Barack Hussein Obama, the Democratic candidate with a Kenyan father, a Kansan mother, an Indonesian stepfather, a childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia and impressionable experience of the Muslim world.

If the globe can’t vote next November, it can find itself in Obama. Troubled by the violent chasm between the West and the Islamic world? Obama seems to bridge it. Disturbed by the gulf between rich and poor that globalization spurs? Obama, the African-American, gets it: the South Side of Chicago is the South Side of the world.

Michael Ignatieff, the deputy leader of Canada’s opposition Liberal Party, said: “Outsiders know it’s your choice. Still, they are following this election with passionate interest. And it’s clear Barack Obama would be the first globalized American leader, the first leader in whom internationalism would not be a credo, it would be in his veins.”

To the south, in Mexico, resentment of the Bush administration has less to do with American unilateralism and more with stalled immigration policy and the building of a border fence. But the thirst for change is the same.

“Mexicans want evidence that things are shifting, which means the Democrats, and of course a woman like Hillary Clinton, or a black like Obama, would signal a huge cultural change,” said Jorge Castañeda, a former foreign minister.

“My sense is the symbolism in Mexico of a dark-skinned American president would be enormous. We’ve got female leaders now in Latin America -- in Chile, in Argentina. But the idea of a U.S. leader who looks the way the world looks as seen from Mexico is revolutionary.”

Of course, Mexicans aren’t electing the president. Nor are Canadians, even if Michael Moore thinks they should. The America of the global imagination is not that of red-state reality, a disconnect that has spawned a million misunderstandings.

Still, the transformational symbolism of an Obama presidency is compelling, especially as the actual content of the foreign policy proposals of leading Democratic candidates looks similar. Among Republicans, only John McCain -- admired in Europe -- seems to offer real bridge-building capacity.

Clinton, Obama and John Edwards all favor closing Guantánamo Bay. They all want to end the Iraq war, although they differ on how fast and on what residual force to leave in the country or area. They all favor undoing unilateralism. They all back engagement with Iran, although Clinton supported the designation of the Revolutionary Guard Corps as terrorists.

Most of this would please an expectant world. But Obama, while saying he might attack “high value terrorist targets” in Pakistan, has been most forthright in sketching a globalized community -- “the security of the American people is inextricably linked to the security of all people” -- and pushing hope over fear.

I see nobody else who would represent such a Kennedy-like restorative charge at a time when America often seems out of sync with the world.

Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the former British ambassador to the United Nations, told me that the United States remained the most important nation, but “the American label feels tied to something anachronistic. America has not been working out where the world is going, nor creating the appropriate relationships for that world.”

Obama, in many ways, is where the world is going. He embodies interconnectedness where the Bush administration has projected separateness.

Andrew Sullivan, in a fine piece in The Atlantic, imagines a Pakistani Muslim seeing on television a man “who attended a majority-Muslim school” and is “now the alleged enemy.”

He notes: “If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close.”

The world isn’t voting. America is. But the candidate who most mirrors the 21st-century world seems clear enough.

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