What Obama Means to the World
"Millions of whites cannot reconcile in their minds with the idea that a black man with his wife and children would move into the White House," argued Fidel Castro. He was right. It just turned out not to make any substantial difference, since those millions of Americans could not bring themselves to vote for any Democrat. It's not clear whether white Europeans would be any more comfortable with electing a black leader in their own countries than some Republicans were here. Having basked in a smug state of superiority over America's social, economic and racial disparities, Europeans were forced by Obama's victory and the passions it stoked to face hard realities about their own institutional discrimination, which was not better or worse--just different.
With the exception of the Roma in Eastern Europe, levels of incarceration and deprivation of nonwhite people in Europe have not reached the level of African-Americans here (although the descendants of Bangladeshis in Britain and Algerians in France come close). Black Europeans enjoy little in the way of black American success. Individuals may break through, but there is nothing on the scale of numbers or wealth comparable with the black American middle class.
It only takes one, though. The question isn't whether nonwhite Europeans are ready to run for national office but whether white Europeans would embrace them. Fascism is once again a mainstream ideology on the continent. When a black woman was chosen as Miss Italy in the mid-'90s, some officials complained that she was "unrepresentative of Italian beauty," and the press crowned her "Miss Discord." Poland's foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, joked that Obama's grandfather was a cannibal. Even though the overwhelming majority of nonwhite Europeans were born in Europe, the fact that they are descendants of immigrants excludes them from the European national stories, which are understood to have only white protagonists.
"Where are you from?" an administrator asked me at university in Edinburgh in what has long been a typical conversation.
"Stevenage," I told him, referring to my hometown thirty miles north of London.
"Where were you born?"
"Hitchin," I said, referring to the town nearby.
"Well, before then?"
"Well, there was no before then."
"Well, where are your parents from?"
"Ah, you're from Barbados," he said.
To this day "immigrant" and "nonwhite" are often used synonymously in France. Indeed, given the conflation of immigration and race in Europe, the fact that Obama's father was an immigrant was in some ways as significant as the fact that he was black. In that sense every country potentially has its Obama, depending on its social fault lines. For the broader symbolism of his win has less to do with race than with exclusion. Just take the group that in the popular imagination resides furthest from power, pluck one from its number, make him or her the national leader and you have an Obama story. In Bolivia it was Evo Morales, the first poor Amerindian to be elected; South Africa's Nelson Mandela went from jail to president in just four years; in Sweden it could be a Finn; in Bulgaria it could be a Turk. Banel Nicolita, a Roma and member of Romania's soccer team, has become known as "the Obama of Romanian football." For a man who is one of eight children raised in a mud house, the accolade could easily be translated as "a man of unlikely accomplishments." "Obama's victory is a motivation for us," said Gruia Bumbu, chair of the National Agency for the Roma.
There was, of course, more to the euphoria over Obama's victory than the question of exclusion--however and wherever it is framed. The defeat of the Republican agenda, with all the war and global havoc it has brought over the past eight years, was enough to make the world jump for joy. After Bush won in 2004, Britain's Daily Mirror ran a headline saying, Doh: 4 More Years Of Dubya... How can 59,054,087 people be so DUMB? The Guardian's features supplement ran a page all in black with tiny words saying, Oh My God! Many understand Obama as America's belated but nonetheless more considered, less cavalier response to 9/11.
As one of the few members of America's political class not tainted by the Iraq invasion, he appeared a thinker as well as a decider. Worldly where Bush was parochial, consensual where Bush was confrontational, nuanced where Bush was brash, he struck the outside world as though he regarded dialogue and negotiation as strengths rather than weaknesses. With his Kenyan roots, multiracial upbringing and childhood experiences in Indonesia, he also struck a more global figure. Of twenty-two countries polled by Pew Research last July, in only one nation, Jordan, did a majority say they had more confidence in McCain than in Obama. In the remaining twenty-one, nine (ranging from Tanzania to Japan) backed Obama by more than thirty points. In only six was the margin in single digits.
This enthusiasm was not spread evenly geographically. Western Europe (particularly France) was elated, while the Middle East was wary. "In these nations, suspicions of American power are pervasive and extend beyond President Bush's personal unpopularity," argued Richard Wike of the Pew Global Attitudes Project. "Unlike in many other regions, in the Middle East there is little optimism about the post-Bush era." Nonetheless, with America's international standing at an all-time low, a change of direction was generally welcome.
But while antipathy toward Bush and what he had done to the world explains the breadth of Obama's appeal, it could never explain the depth. Relatives of mine in Barbados and Ireland followed the primaries closely. Children of friends at home in England asked if they could stay up to see the election results. They would never have done that for John Kerry. In the Pew poll, taken during the primary, respondents in Europe favored Obama over Hillary Clinton by significant margins.
"The American Negro has no conception of the hundreds of millions of other non-whites' concern for him," Malcolm X observed in his autobiography. "He has no conception of their feeling of brotherhood for and with him." And yet as Ronan Bennett's account of his time in prison shows, the identification went beyond race. Which brings us back to Obama, whose central appeal was not so much that he looked like other Americans as that he sounded so different--and not just in comparison to Bush. For if Obama represents a serious improvement over his predecessor, he also stands tall among other world leaders. At a time of poor leadership, he has given people a reason to feel passionate about politics. Brits, Italians, South Africans, French and Russians look at Obama and then at Gordon Brown, Silvio Berlusconi, Thabo Mbeki, Nicolas Sarkozy and Vladimir Putin and realize they could and should be doing a whole lot better.
Much of this is, of course, delusional. People's obsession with Obama always said more about them than him. Most wanted a paradigm shift in global politics, and, unable to elect governments that could fight for it, they simply assigned that role to Obama. His silence during the shelling of Gaza, however, was sobering for many. As a mainstream Democrat he stands at the head of a party that in any other Western nation would be on the right on foreign policy, the center on economic policy and the center-left on social policy.
Come inauguration day, that final symbolic set piece, the transition will be complete. The rest of the world must become comfortable with a black American, not as a symbol of protest but of power. And not of any power but a superpower, albeit a broken and declining one. A black man with more power than they. How that will translate into the different political cultures around the globe, whom it will inspire, how it will inspire them and what difference that inspiration will make will vary. From inauguration day people's perceptions of Obama will no longer hinge on what he is but on what he does. While it's unlikely that prisoners in Guantánamo have been passing around samizdat copies of The Audacity of Hope, Obama has already given Maria Savu a different understanding of what is possible for her grandson and maybe something for little Obama Scoica and the people of Rusciori to look up to.