ABOUT two decades ago, the German philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, suggested that since the American presidency had such unequalled power and influence across the globe, all the denizens of planet earth should be able to vote in American presidential elections. In making this suggestion, Habermas was of course half serious and half ironically playful. There is simply no precedent in modern history for citizens of other countries across the world to participate in electing the rulers of countries other than their own. And there is the fact that among all the rich nations of the world, the United States has the hardest time conducting clean, free and fair elections. For this reason, having everyone in the world participate in who gets elected into office as the American president would make a bad enough condition even worse.
Notwithstanding all these caveats, the election of American presidents continues to excite considerable interest in nearly every nation and region of the world. Moreover, since the arrival of Barack Obama on the scene four years ago, this global interest in the election of American presidents has increased exponentially. In this week’s column, I wish to give what I hope will be an instructive account of how this global interest in American presidential elections played a not insignificant role in the electoral fortunes of the two candidates, Obama and Romney.
In this regard, the first interesting thing to report is the fact that before the elections in America itself, straw polls were taken in many countries around the world as to which candidate would either win or was preferred over the other, Obama or Romney. Without any exception and by a margin much bigger than Obama’s eventual victory in America itself, those polled in Africa, Asia, Europe and other regions of the world were either sure that victory would go to Obama or they wanted him to win anyway. As big as Obama’s margin of victory was in these straw polls around the world, nobody was surprised by the occurrence. One explanation for this is the fact that, for a variety of reasons, Obama has the status of a music, sports, entertainment, film or cultural superstar in many countries of the world. He was the fourth sitting American president to have ever won the coveted Nobel Peace Prize, with only three others, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter before him. Beside this global superstardom of the Democratic candidate, Romney had no chance whatsoever in these global straw polls to “choose” the winner of the 2012 presidential elections. In the first place, he was an unknown quantity outside the United States. Secondly, it did not help matters at all that on his first visit as a candidate to America’s most important and historic ally, Britain, he caused considerable displeasure among the Britons for badmouthing their preparations for Olympics 2012. In short, in marked contrast to Obama, no adoring crowds, no avid paparazzi followed Romney everywhere and anywhere he went on that “getting-to-meet-the-world” tour as an American presidential candidate.
So far, we have been reviewing these aspects of global preferences for Obama over Romney as more or less a kind of popularity contest between the two men, without any indication that this topic has serious implications for the nature and consequences of American global power on our planet. But nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, the disdain caused by Romney’s impolitic comments regarding the preparations of the Brits for the 2012 Olympics reflects this underlying issue of the real, potential or symbolic dimensions of American influence or authority in the world. I happened to have been passing through London when Romney made his unwise comments regarding preparations for the Olympics. In all the tabloids and on television, the undisguised feeling was that Romney was showing American arrogance, American superiority complex toward the rest of the world. And moreover, it was plainly stated in these British news and information outlets that Romney was displaying these well recognized and deeply resented aspects of American global hegemony to a friendly nation, a trusted ally, and this before he had actually become the President of America! By contrast, in Britain and most of the other Western and Asian allies of the United States, the general feeling about Obama is that he is sensitive to their national pride and sovereign autonomy, that he is as much dedicated to earning respect for American influence as asserting it.
Given this considerable differentiation in perceptions around the world as to how Romney and Obama respectively embody and act out American global hegemony, the question that arises is this: Are there really any significant and unbridgeable differences between the two men and the political parties that they belong to in the institutional and policy aspects of America’s role in world affairs in the 21st century? The answer is both yes and no. This is the heart of the matter in my observations and reflections in this essay. Let me explain this seeming conundrum of a “yes” that is also a “no”.
Perhaps the best way to approach this particular topic is to give a brief account of what transpired in the last of the three debates between Obama and Romney in their campaign for electoral victory. Significantly, of the three debates held, this was the one that focused almost completely on foreign, inter-state and global affairs. Well, something startling happened during the debate, something that goes to the core of this yes and no conundrum. Permit me to give a brief but cogent account of it.
In the weeks and months leading to this particular debate, Romney and the Republicans had been at great pains, they had gone to great lengths to insist that with regard to the display and use of American power and influence in the world, there was a chasm, an ocean of difference between what Obama had been doing in the four years of his first term in office and what Romney and the Republicans would do with the capture of the White House. Obama was not “decisive enough”, they asserted, and the consequence of this, in their opinion, was that in many parts of the world, America was no longer feared or respected. Indeed, Romney went so far as to accuse Obama of “apologizing” for past or present misuse of American power in the world. “Americans do not apologize”, Romney trumpeted, adding emphatically, “I will never apologize to any nation, any people.” And to put some teeth to his barks, Romney surrounded himself with the hawkish foreign affairs military and civilian neoconservatives that pushed George Bush into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
With all of this noise and bluster about an alleged decline of American power in the world, everyone expected a showdown of epic proportions between Romney and Obama in that final debate on foreign policy. Imagine the utter surprise that everyone had when the Romney that showed up for the debate was not the Romney that was expected. He backed down from nearly everything he had been saying for weeks and months. Indeed, he repeated again and again during the debate that he was in agreement with nearly all of Obama’s foreign policy views and decisions. He would pursue the path of peace and understanding between America and the world, Romney said repeatedly. On the subject of Iran, he asserted that he was in agreement with Obama’s strategy of pursuing economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation to the point where there was no option left but war and even then, everything possible would be done to either avert it or make it something America did not wage alone but with allies and other nations. So stunning was Romany in reversing his well known positions and embracing Obama’s views and policies that some late-night comedians on American television joked that if the debate had lasted for five minutes longer, Romney would have given up his candidacy and endorsed Obama!
Why this remarkable about turn of Romney? And what does it have to do with my suggestion that the answer is yes and no to the question whether there are any really significant differences between Obama and Romney, the Democrats and the Republicans in the policy and institutional aspects of American global power in the 21st century? For a key to unraveling these questions, let us look at the reason, the calculation behind Romney’s about turn, his abandonment of his own positions and his corresponding last minute adoption of Obama’s foreign policy views and actions over the last four years.
Quite simply, this is because by the end of the electioneering campaigns of the two candidates, the views and positions taken by Romney had become very unpopular, so much so that they seemed likely to cost him and the Republicans the chance to recapture the White House. Americans have become extremely war weary. They have become extremely averse to the humungous economic costs of foreign wars. They have in particular become extremely bitter about the domestic and foreign fallout from the policies and actions of George W. Bush and his neoconservatives hawks in the world. By contrast, Obama in the last four years has presented Americans with an alternative to Bush and the neocons: using American military and economic might decisively but wisely, with an eye to making the rest of the world see America with respect rather than fear, in friendship rather than with domination, for peace rather than in pursuit of war. This is the “yes” part of the answer to our central question in this piece as to whether or not there are any significant differences between Obama and Romney, the Democrats and the Republicans.
The “yes” part can be briefly stated. No American president, Obama included, has ever dismantled, or will ever voluntarily significantly reduce the economic and military bases of American supremacy in the world. For this to happen, a combination of external and internal factors would have to take place leading the Americans and the rest of us in the human community to agree that we can all live peacefully and productively in a world without lone, double or triple superpowers in fierce competition between themselves while lording it over the rest of us. Thus, there are no fundamental differences between Obama and Romney, the Democrats and the Republicans with regard to the nature of American power in the world. But having said that, we must acknowledge that external and internal forces are already at work for a world without hegemonic superpowers and Obama is one of the early signs of this conjuncture. Who knows but that we may be only a few decades from such a world?
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