Oct 27 2008
If you watched SNL this past Saturday (it’s okay to admit it—the show has suddenly become relevant again in this election season), you probably saw that during musical guest Coldplay’s performance, lead singer Chris Martin wore a white band around his right arm on which were the handwritten words “Barack Obama” (no video available yet, so until I can find it, above in its place is an inexplicably hilarious skit of Andy Samberg impersonating Mark Wahlberg—think of it as a mental health break). Seeing as Martin and his Coldplay bandmates are British and clearly not voting on November 4, his armband was a not so subtle reminder that American elections, and especially this year’s elections, are worldwide affairs.
For all of us working in international education, exchange, and development, one of the issues at the heart of the 2008 election is the United States’ image throughout the world. The work that we do, whether it be facilitating student and professional exchange programs, advising international students on a university campus, or working to improve education and communications infrastructure in a developing country, has at its core an interest in presenting the United States and its people at their best. And while most of would say that we are not in the business of convincing others around the world that the United States is great (or the best, or even good), we are in the business of helping to provide them with the firsthand experience of our country and its people so that they can make their own, informed decision, one that is not based on inaccurate stereotypes. Our next president will go a long way toward either continuing the downward spiral of anti-Americanism that has been persistent and ever-growing these past eight years, or toward restoring the U.S.’ image and standing as an admirable, moral leader worthy of being followed.
While this blog is not about making political statements, it is clear to me, from the perspective of an international affairs professional who cares deeply about the United States’ image, standing, and thus moral prowess and soft power, that there is only one candidate who can and will lead us tin the right direction. Andrew Sullivan saw it, incredibly presciently, more than a year ago:
Think of it as the most effective potential re-branding of the United States since Reagan. Such a re-branding is not trivial…The next president has to create a sophisticated and supple blend of soft and hard power to isolate the enemy, to fight where necessary, but also to create an ideological template that works to the West’s advantage over the long haul. There is simply no other candidate with the potential of Obama to do this. Which is where his face comes in. Consider this hypothetical. It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man—Barack Hussein Obama—is the new face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm.
Nicholas Kristof wrote about it more recently:
We’re beginning to get a sense of how Barack Obama’s political success could change global perceptions of the United States, redefining the American “brand” to be less about Guantánamo and more about equality. This change in perceptions would help rebuild American political capital in the way that the Marshall Plan did in the 1950s or that John Kennedy’s presidency did in the early 1960s.
And if you don’t believe them, look no further than a 22-nation survey by the BBC found that voters abroad preferred Barack Obama to John McCain in every single country — by four to one over all. Nearly half of those in the poll said that the election of Obama, an African-American, would “fundamentally change” their perceptions of the United States.
It’s not just his face, his name, and his background that make him uniquely qualified to reengage our country with the world in ways that don’t involve missiles and tanks. Over the course of his 22-month campaign, Obama has shown the patience, thoughtfulness, and steadiness that we need in a president. He has shown the resolve that will be needed to deal with the toughest of international crises, but also the compassion and understanding needed to bridge the divides between us and so many others that have for too long been neglected and allowed to run deep and wide.
We work on a daily basis to increase and spread international understanding and cooperation. Let’s support someone for the job of president who will give us the steady and firm support we need to do our own jobs, and to do them well.