One of the more comic episodes during the last US presidential election was the effort by Britain’s Guardian newspaper to influence the vote. The Guardian accurately foresaw that the state of Ohio was going to be crucial to the outcome. So it provided its readers with the addresses of 14,000 voters in Clark County, Ohio – and encouraged them to write letters, urging a vote against George W. Bush.
By Gideon Rachman
Ken Loach, a British film director, set the tone for this charm offensive by writing: “Today your country is reviled across continents as never before.” But – sadly – this effort to win friends and influence voters backfired spectacularly. In the event Clark was the only one of Ohio’s 88 counties to switch from Democrat to Republican in 2004. A headline in the Springfield News-Sun, an Ohio paper, summed up the local mood: “Butt out Brits, voters say.”
Perhaps wisely, The Guardian has decided not to repeat the experiment this year. But its journalists are still watching the US presidential election with mounting concern. Jonathan Freedland, a columnist, recently wrote of a “sinking feeling in the stomach”, as he watched the polls turn against Barack Obama. His article was headlined: “The world’s verdict will be harsh if the US rejects the man it yearns for”.
Mr Freedland is clearly correct to point out that foreigners (and not just Guardian readers) are overwhelmingly rooting for Mr Obama. A BBC poll of 22 countries, published a couple of weeks ago, found pro-Obama majorities in every single one of them – from India to Kenya to Germany and points in between. Israel is the only nation that I know of where the polls suggest that John McCain is the local favourite.
But should Americans care about what the rest of the world thinks? They are, after all, electing a president of the US – not a secretary- general of the UN. Foreigners may wonder why the ability to dress a moose or drive your kids to a hockey game is a relevant qualification for the vice-presidency. But the US is quite a successful country. So its voters may not be as bad at picking their leaders as the rest of the world evidently fears.
It is also true that a lot of anti-American sentiment is so deeply rooted – and so irrational – that it will take a lot more than the election of a charming Democrat to change things. Another poll by WorldPublicOpinion.org, published last week, found that 23 per cent of Germans, 30 per cent of Mexicans and 36 per cent of Turks thought that it was in fact the US government that perpetrated the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in 2001.
It would be understandable if American voters looked at figures like that and decided that it really was pointless worrying about what the Germans or the Mexicans thought of the next occupant of the White House.
But, tempting as it is, that would be a mistake. The fact that the rest of the world overwhelmingly favours Mr Obama deserves to be a factor – no more than that – in the choice that Americans will make in November.
To understand why, consider another poll: the annual Transatlantic Trends survey for the German Marshall Fund. In 2002 – the year before the invasion of Iraq – this found that 64 per cent of Europeans thought that American leadership in the world was desirable. But the 2008 survey found that support for US leadership is now down to 36 per cent.
This matters to America – or at least it should matter. Both main candidates for the White House have outlined foreign policy platforms that stress the need to rebuild American alliances. With Wall Street in meltdown and the American military overstretched, the days when a new US president could confidently promise to “pay any price, bear any burden” are long gone. The next occupant of the White House is going to want to do a bit of burden-sharing. And he will have to turn to the Europeans – feckless and irritating though they may be – first of all.
There is little doubt that a President Obama would start with much more goodwill than a President McCain – and that would be a big advantage. But either candidate is going to have a chance to introduce himself to the world in the first few months of the presidency. Both would find it useful to be as charming as possible. So here are some suggestions – one for a putative President McCain and one for a would-be President Obama.
Mr McCain would be up against the impression that he is just another George W. Bush. So it would be important to him to make a couple of dramatic gestures that reversed unpopular Bush policies. He has promised to close Guantánamo and to take climate change more seriously. It would be a good idea to move fast on both issues.
An Obama administration could capitalise on the fact that Mr Obama is half-politician, half rock-star. At the Democratic convention in Denver he was preceded on stage by other rock stars such as Stevie Wonder and Sheryl Crow. In the first few months of an Obama administration, the US government should arrange a huge open-air concert in London, featuring all these artists – with an Obama speech as the last act on stage. It would draw a crowd far bigger than the 200,000 that came to see Mr Obama speak in Berlin. It would re-introduce Europe to the idea that America – and the American president – can be cool. Shame that it seems unlikely ever to happen.