Saturday, January 12, 2008

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Does the 2008 election augment America's soft power?

There's been a lot of talk over the past year two years four years since Operation Iraqi Freedom about the erosion in America's "soft power" resources. There's also been a lot of talk about how some of the candidates for the 2008 election might, because of their personal attributes or personal history, automatically boost our soft power.

In the Washington Post, however, Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan implicitly raise an intriguing possibility -- the topsy-turvy nature of the election campaign itself could improve America's image abroad:

John Mbugua, 56, a taxi driver in Mombasa, Kenya, woke himself at 3 a.m. the day of the Iowa caucuses and flipped on CNN. He said he watched for hours, not understanding precisely what or where Iowa was but thrilled about the victory of Barack Obama, the first U.S. presidential contender with Kenyan roots.

"I have never been interested in the elections before," Mbugua, who also got up at 4 a.m. to watch the New Hampshire primary results, said in a telephone interview. "But now everybody is watching. Everybody feels that Kenya has a stake in the outcome of the U.S. election."

From Mombasa's sandy shores on the Indian Ocean to the hot tubs of Reykjavik, Iceland, the U.S. primary elections are creating unprecedented interest and excitement in a global audience that normally doesn't tune in until the general election in November.

This year's wide-open primary season, filled with big personalities and dramatic story lines, has created an eager global audience that suddenly knows its Hillary from its Huckabee.

"It's a great spectacle, and people are avidly devouring it," said Jeremy O'Grady, editor in chief of the Week, a British magazine. O'Grady said major British newspapers this week alone have devoted more than 87 pages to news of the U.S. primaries, including 22 front-page stories -- exceptionally intense coverage of a foreign news event. More than 700 correspondents from 50 countries covered the Iowa and New Hampshire events.

A popular BBC radio program, "World Have Your Say," devoted an hour this week to parsing how pollsters wrongly predicted that Obama, an Illinois senator, would win the Democratic primary in New Hampshire. The show attracted detailed and nuanced calls and text messages from Romania, South Africa, Liberia and other countries.

About 1.5 million people visited the BBC Web page reporting the win by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) over Obama in New Hampshire, making it one of the most-read stories in months, a BBC spokesman said.

"The candidates have more iconic status than usual," O'Grady said. "They are almost like superhero cartoons: the Mormon, the woman, the black, the millionaire, the war hero. . . . We do love a good show over here."

I have mixed feelings about the global attention to our little campaign. On the one hand, the campaign rhetoric since the new year has been so banal that I can see it being offputting.

The Cliff Notes version of the past two weeks of the campaign for the Democrats has been as follows: "Hope, change, real change, experience, change, likeability, false hope, change, fairy tale, change, even more change."

For the Republicans: "Merry Christmas, Reagan, Reagan, Reagan, Happy New Year, Reagan, tax cuts, Reagan, Reagan, Reagan, Reagan, Reagan!"

We're not talkng the Lincoln-Douglas debates here.

On the other hand, there are ways in which the race has highlighted some positive qualities of the American system. Consider:

1) This might be the most competitive presidential election in modern history. No incumbent president or vice president is running. On the Democratic side, there are/were three candidates with viable shots at the nomination; On the GOP side, there are/were four.

2) Front-runners have fallen. On the Democratic side, Clnton and then Obama have been brought low by the shifts in voter sentiment. On the GOP side, it's been even more dramatic. McCain was the frontrunner, then Romney, then Giuliani, then Romney, Huckabee, and now McCain again.

3) Negative campaigning has not worked. Part of the explanation for Huckabee's rise has been the relentlessly upbeat quality of the campaign and the man. Mitt Romney, in contrast, has not gained much from going after either Huckabee or McCain. Obama's optimism on the campaign trail worked well for him, until women thought Hillary was being unfairly attacked and rallied behind her. I suspect, in South Carolina, that she will pay a price for her "false hope" line, not to mention Bill Clinton's "fairy tale" line.

4) From an international perspective, the cream is rising to the top. The three candidates who would likely generate the most excitement outside the United States are Clinton, Obama, and McCain, and they've done pretty well so far.

Question to readers: will the campaign itself improve America's standing abroad?

posted by Dan on 01.12.08 at 01:30 PM


Unless Romney or Huckabee are elected, the campaign will improve America's standing abroad for a few months. President Bush simply leaving office will improve our standing in the world. His opposition in this country and our adversaries abroad have had 8 years to demonize him. However, voting to improve our standing in the world (which will be short-lived) rather than choosing the best candidate has more negatives than positives.

The upside is that the rest of the world will see a campaign of unknowns play out (aside from the wife of a former President). None of the candidates has yet been demonized internationally and this will help us make a fresh start in the realm of international public opinion.

The downsides are greater. The election of Hillary may give the appearance of nepotism and corruption because she is the wife of a former President. The election of Huckabee will feed into the conspiracy theories about America being on a modern Crusade and favoring Israel on religious grounds. The election of Romney, after he is portrayed as a cult member, will not help much, especially in the Islamic world. I see no glaring concern in terms of our standing abroad among the other viable candidates, other than Obama being seen as a lightweight.

But that is just the initial tone following the election and during the initial honeymoon period following inaugeration. In the broader picture, the character, judgment, and leadership of our next President will be what determines our standing in the world. Hopefully the voters think beyond the "first black" or "first woman" headlines of the Wednesday following election day and focus more on the four-year term that we are voting on. Labeling Romney as a cultist and focusing too heavily on Huckabee's evangelical angle will handicap each candidate from the start. But that does not make the other candidates better choices. I worry more about the inexperience of a guy who was a local politician in Chicago just a few years ago and a women who is arguably a power-hungry sociopath with no credentials. Whatever glowing headline that either could garner after election day will be of little consolation to us four years later if we find ourselves in a Carteresque "malaise."

posted by: Joseph Sixpack on 01.12.08 at 01:30 PM [permalink]

No, not really.

Elections are common enough outside the USA that us foreigners generally won't be reduced to teary-eyed awe and wonder that the US is having (a very very longlasting) one.

And whilst Obama might stir up some interest as the first black president , using the word 'excitement' for the other 2 is rather overstating it.

posted by: kenny on 01.12.08 at 01:30 PM [permalink]

Here in Holland people are very interested in the elections. It is amazing, detailed reports on Iowa and New Hampshire even make it to the 8 o clock news.

Yes, I think the elections improve America's image abroad, since we see a black man, a woman and many others campaigning.

But ... the Republicans have a very bad image in Holland, almost no one woukd be willing to support any Republican candidate, with the exception of a few who would support McCain. Mike Huckabee is viewed by many as too conservative, christian, fundamentalist etc. I think the view people have of the Republicans is too simplistic, but this view has been around for a very long time, long before Bush junior, 9/11 and the war on terror. Did Reagan do that?? I don't know.

posted by: Harmen on 01.12.08 at 01:30 PM [permalink]

Dan writes, "Mitt Romney, in contrast, has not gained much from going after either Huckabee or McCain."

Uh . . . Romney is actually in *first* place right now, with 24 delegates to Huckabee's 18 and McCain's 10.

posted by: arthur on 01.12.08 at 01:30 PM [permalink]

Dear Dan, I am a liberal and a native of SoCal. I know too much of pop culture. I rely upon your blog to bring me some glimpse of the scary reality beyond People magazine. Are you drifting? Please analyze some bonds or something else difficult - quickly. I am begining to understand what you are saying, and that cannot be a good thing.

posted by: bstr on 01.12.08 at 01:30 PM [permalink]

Just getting rid of Bush will give us a little bump in the world opinion polls.

After that, given the quality of candidates from both parties, prospects are not so good, but someone could rise to beat our expectations.

posted by: save_the_rustbelt on 01.12.08 at 01:30 PM [permalink]

I had the pleasure of spending election day 2004 in Moscow, at the offices of a client of mine there. One of the employees of this Russian company was a Finnish dude who had his eyes glued to CNN International. He knew county-level Ohio politics better than I did.

posted by: temoc94 on 01.12.08 at 01:30 PM [permalink]

It's not really astounding that the entire world is watching to see who will replace Bush. His retirement from office is probably the most eagerly awaited global event since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I think the campaign process per se simply reflects the anticipation of who will succeed him. The net benefit to American "soft power" can only be measured insomuch as it produces a result that might actually change the course of American policy. Read that as Obama, Clinton or McCain, pretty much in that order.

posted by: Connor Anderson on 01.12.08 at 01:30 PM [permalink]

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