Thursday, November 6, 2008

21st century

On Monday night, the night before election day, I found a copy of Hendrik Hertzberg’s book Politics, a collection of his past political writing. The last piece in the book was his post-November 2004 election commentary in the New Yorker, a reminder of the hopelessness many Americans felt after the last election. Most disturbing for me was Hertzberg’s prediction that “the anti-Bush sentiments that are manifest throughout much of the world will now transmute into fully fledged anti-Americanism.” No, I wanted to say, this is not the America of the future.

I suspect the heavy, heavy weight of the past eight years has played a big part in the incredible amount of reporting here in the US of international reactions to Obama’s victory. I doubt there has ever been so much interest in how other countries perceive an American election—a product not only of Obama’s win but also of the growing sense in the US that we are interconnected with the world. We certainly deserve a bit of self-congratulation. It’s gratifying to hear statements like, “It’s kind of nice to feel good about the United States again,” from Armando Díaz, 24, a bookkeeper in Venezuela, as quoted in the New York Times. In Dubai, Al Arabiya, a Saudi-owned Arabic-language news channel, had predicted that Americans would succumb to their fear of difference. “McCain will win,” a UAE government official had said. “That is the American mentality.”

As I’ve written here before, the most exciting thing for me about an Obama presidency is its potential to reinvigorate the United States as a moral power. People who have been trained to believe that the American population is ignorant, racist, and imperialist have now seen it elect an internationalist black man whose middle name is Hussein. This is not to discount the significance of racism and imperialism in the history of the US. But it does serve to remind the world that America is a young country, and we are not hopelessly mired in any tradition or cultural trait, even one so seemingly intractable as racism.

People’s reactions to Obama’s win have not always been satisfying. Another New York Times article reflects our need for admiration from outsiders, so common in countries that are experiencing an outpouring of nationalism:

There is another paradox about the world’s view of the election of Mr. Obama: many who are quick to condemn the United States for its racist past and now congratulate it for a milestone fail to acknowledge the same problem in their own societies, and so do not see how this election could offer them any lessons about themselves.

In Russia, for example, where Soviet leaders used to respond to any American criticism of human rights violation with “But you hang Negroes,” analysts note that the election of Mr. Obama removes a stain. But they speak of it without reference to their own treatment of ethnic minorities.

In China, it remains to be seen whether the American example will spur critical self-reflection about the political situation there. There are indications that it will and indications that it won’t. “The Opposite End of China” blog posts this e-mail from a Chinese acquaintance:

Congratulations on Obama's successful run for president!! I have been constantly amazed as I follow the elections along the way. What an achievement it truly is... no doubt he'll help restore America's image around the world. At the same time I can't stop comparing. I can't envision a ethnic Tibetan, Uygur, Hui, or Mogol [sic] gets elected President of China, not in 60 years... that's how far apart the two countries are, in terms of maturity in political institutions.

This is the kind of thing we love to hear. Similarly, the BBC ran a quote from an anonymous Chinese:

American elections have shaken me to the core. I have always thought the Chinese
political system is the best in the world, but it is not so. We are deprived of our sacred rights, rule of law and human rights are trampled upon. To have a democratic system like the one in the USA is more difficult than touching the sky... But we long to achieve freedom and democracy, which is a difficult task for us young people in China.

(See the China Beat for more quotes about the election from China. See here for more feel-good quotes from people around the world. See ChinaSmack for interesting comments on the election from Chinese online forums.)

Perhaps most interesting are indications that Chinese who are happy with the status quo are nervous about the American election inspiring people in China. News site Izaobao recalled the late 19th century and early 20th century, when Chinese officials went to the US to observe its political process. According to a translation of the piece by the Wall Street Journal,

The results of those experiments were less than favorable… — the fall of the empire, warlordism, civil war, etc. Factoring in that experience as well as 100 years of growth, [the site] asks, which approach remains wiser? A fuller embrace of what it calls “the false games of the bourgeoisie?” Or the low-level village elections that China has in place?

Izaobao seems to be implying that history has shown it’s dangerous for China use the American political process as a model. This is certainly a common idea in China, and one frequently hears that implementing American-style democracy would result in chaos and instability. I generally agree with this argument—American-style democracy works well in America precisely because it is thoroughly American—but I think it usually goes too far: rejecting American-style democracy doesn’t mean you have to reject free speech and a gradual development towards some sort of representation.

At any rate, Obama’s presidency holds out the possibility that America’s power in the world will indeed be based on moral might, rather than economic or military might, in the 21st century. For many, this country is already becoming, once again, an inspirational force instead of a terrifying one.