First published online by UCLA Today Online, on July 15, 2008.
Despite all the media coverage of the national election campaign, most Americans probably don’t realize how captivated foreigners are by Barack Obama, let alone understand why.
I was reminded of Obama’s global appeal in mid-June when I traveled to Malaysia to speak at the Asia Pacific Mediation Forum conference. My colleagues were mediators from China, Japan, India, Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and many Pacific Island nations. They were also Christians, Muslims and Hindus.
Despite the group’s great diversity, my fellow mediators shared a common sentiment — they wanted the Democratic candidate to win in the November elections. And because I am not just American but, like Obama, a biracial Harvard Law grad who has an immigrant parent, they wanted to tell me exactly why.
My international colleagues didn’t care about Democrat vs. Republican and their inspiration didn’t come from Obama’s policies; instead, they were inspired by us — everyday Americans. These foreign mediators saw in Obama’s ascendancy a message of broader change. Electing Obama would signal to the world that Americans have changed.
Sure, electing a black president four decades after the Civil Rights Movement represents change. But the hope of much of the world lies in the forward momentum of what this one act could signal: The promise of a new America.
A new America would be a place where everyday people, like those from my home state of Ohio, could find the courage and the inspiration to engage in deeper change, reconciling — like South Africa did with apartheid — from our nation’s long struggle with racism and the legacy of slavery. But even more than that, a new America might just stand for freedom, justice and equality for all, not just for Americans.
As mediators, my colleagues recognize that addressing global challenges, whether HIV/AIDS, climate change or overpopulation, requires global cooperation. The world needs Americans to help lead the way toward solving these problems.
In recent years, America has turned away from the opinions of foreign leaders and the advice of the international community. But the long view of history reveals that our world is ultimately connected and that there is value in taking sound counsel from abroad.
The great chronicler of American democracy, after all, was a Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville. This is not to say that Americans should look to foreigners to decide who to vote for in November. But in casting our votes we do well to remember that we are not only electing a new president but a new reputation for what kind of Americans we want to be.
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