A Change Election Abroad, Too
John McCain's prisoner-of-war experience is a strong selling point for him in this American election. But it is a powerful drag on his popularity in Europe, where past U.S. involvement in Vietnam still generates intensely negative feelings.
Barack Obama's flirtation with protectionism similarly divides opinion at home and abroad. His attacks on NAFTA helped him compete for the Democratic nomination. But they cause important foreign partners such as Mexico, China and Japan to wonder if an Obama presidency would be good for them.
The world is very much with Americans in this thoroughly unorthodox year. Foreign leaders traditionally complain that they cannot vote in our presidential elections even though their nations' fortunes frequently depend on the outcome. This year they get a say of a sort in a campaign in which foreign policy is both urgent and important.
One aim of Obama's high-flying, whistle-stop tour of Afghanistan, the Middle East and Western Europe was to assemble televised images suggesting that the world is eagerly awaiting the change in Washington that he promises. That was certainly no problem in George W. Bush-weary Germany.
Which raises two big questions: Is it true that the rest of the world is solidly behind Obama and the Democrats? And should Americans care what the rest of the world thinks about our election?
My own unscientific polling -- conducted while traveling in May and June to six of the Group of Eight industrial nations (I missed Germany and Canada) and three other European countries -- suggests that while Obamamania is deep in Western Europe, it is not as broad globally as is often thought in the United States.
Eagerness to leave the Bush years far behind mingles in France, Britain, Italy and elsewhere with the resurrection of a strongly romantic view of the United States as a place of endless surprises, good and bad -- a place that can do and be anything, in contrast to the more regulated and tradition-bound societies of the Old Continent. This flatters not only the Democratic contender but Americans as a whole.
Obama also benefits from general disappointment among Europeans with their own leaders, who stumble under a seemingly endless European Union constitutional crisis, uncertain economies and personality tics of various sorts. Vicarious transatlantic change will do if the real thing is not available locally.
Russia's political elite and its government can probably be safely counted in the Obama camp as well. The Kremlin has often preferred to work with Republican administrations, which were thought to be more reliable in getting arms-control agreements through Congress and less likely to press Russia on human rights issues.
But McCain's visceral support for including former Soviet republics Ukraine and Georgia in NATO, as well as his suggestion that he will work to get Russia expelled from the G-8, has turned attitudes in Moscow against the GOP this year.
"The rhetoric of both candidates disappoints Russians," a Russian diplomat told me in Moscow. "But McCain's has been more offensive." Members of Russia's weak opposition parties also shy away from voicing support for McCain, even though he has been a sharper critic of Vladimir Putin's retreat from democratic freedoms than Obama has been.
In Asia, trade is the biggest dividing line of the campaign and works in McCain's favor. Both China and Japan have settled into a comfortable relationship with Bush and give his administration high marks for its Asia policy and for promoting free trade. They would expect McCain to continue this pattern and fear that victorious Democrats would disrupt it, I was told in Tokyo. India's political leaders seem to share those concerns.
Obama did little during his meticulously choreographed Middle East stops to dispel worries in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and elsewhere that he will be at least as pro-Israel as McCain -- and more likely to quit Iraq, and to engage Iran, without regard to the effect those actions would have on the region.
"For us, he is high-risk for sure, high-gain only maybe," an Arab diplomat told me. "Anyway, the United States could elect Osama bin Laden as president and American Middle East policy would not change. It is that locked in for Israel."
Not monolithic when it comes to the virtues and shortcomings of the two candidates, the world's view of the American electoral process is nonetheless consistent on one point: There is a hunger for renewed U.S. leadership that emphasizes American ideals and principles as much as American power. And that should matter to Americans come Nov. 4.