[Overseas View]Why the world watchedWe have already entered an election year in the United States. But it will not only be an American election; it will be followed as a national election in every country in the world, from Asia to Europe, passing through the Middle East and Latin America.
For almost a week early this month, a little state inhabited by only 3 million people, which very few people could locate on a map, was the center of the world’s attention. Iowa has the privilege of organizing the first round of the U.S. primaries.
We do not know who will enter the White House as president next year. But one can be sure that until then, the U.S. electoral process will be on the front page of many newspapers on Earth. It could be considered a worldwide election, even though only U.S. citizens have the right to vote.
No other political event has similar impact.
In the past, even if the American presidential election was a matter of interest for the rest of the world, it was not followed as closely as today.
Such important and extended coverage in the international media did not exist when Kennedy, Nixon, Carter or Reagan got elected.
This can be explained by four factors.
The first one is a side effect of globalization. Boundaries tend to be less rigorous as major international events have a strong effect on international affairs.
The second one is the strategic importance of the United States.
Even weakened by the Iraq war, George W. Bush’s mistakes, the subprime mortgage financial crisis and the fall of the dollar, the United States remains the only “hyperpower,” to quote the former foreign minister of France, Hubert Vedrine.
In every country, the most important bilateral relation is the one established with Washington. That was not the case before the end of the bipolar world.
Now, in every country, citizens think the U.S. presidential election could have an important impact not only within American boundaries but also in their country and their own lives.
The third reason is that this election is a wide-open race. For the first time since 1928, neither the incumbent president nor his vice president is running.
Therefore, the race is very uncertain on both sides of the political spectrum. A wide range of candidates have high hopes of winning the Republican primaries, while two strong figures of the Democratic Party are trying to be either the first female or the first black to be elected president of the United States.
The fourth reason is that in almost every country in the world there is a strong desire to open a new page and put an end to the Bush presidency. This is also the result of fears caused by America’s international policy and overwhelming condemnation of it. There is a strong hope for a radical change in Washington’s international behavior. Not only does the United States have huge budget and trade deficits, it also suffers from a most important and most damaging deficit to its image in the world.
Every opinion poll conducted by American or international institutions confirms this other inconvenient truth. Never in history has the American image been worse in the world. The United States may be a hyperpower, but it is hyper-unpopular. Washington has the most important “hard power,” thanks to its unchallenged military prowess, but it also has a very damaged “soft power.” Since image is such an important part of power in modern times, this situation is a matter of concern for Americans.
One of the most important goals of the next U.S. president will be to mend America’s relationship with the rest of the world, to come back with a more multilateral approach and to give up its unilateral, aggressive positions.
This task will, of course, depend on who will be the next occupant of the White House. Astonishingly we cannot take it for granted that a Democrat will be elected. As unpopular a president as Bush is (both in and out the United States) there is still, according to the polls, the possibility that a Republican could be elected if the candidate is not linked to Bush.
Some of them -- Mike Huckabee, Rudolph Giuliani, Mitt Romney -- are even more hard-line than Bush on foreign policy matters. All of them say they would increase America’s military budget, which already accounts for half of the world’s military expenditures.
Hillary Clinton voted for the war in Iraq. She would be more open-minded than Bush and would take advantage of her husband’s international popularity, but she would not change America’s policy radically.
Barack Obama is more promising in this field, as he is more open to other cultures and less inwardly oriented. He has been against the Iraq war from the beginning and advocates speaking with everyone, including so-called rogue states. His election would really change the perceptions of America abroad. But only Americans have the right to vote and for now, Clinton and Obama are neck-and-neck in the polls.
*The writer is director of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris.
by Pascal Boniface