It’s hard to know whether the near-constant presence of Barrack Obama in the global media of late – compared to the marked absence of John McCain from anything outside the American press – is the result of a broader campaign, a reflection of its success, or simply based on the novelty of a black American presidential candidate. It might even be a mixture of all three. But reading today about Obama’s stirring speech to a crowd of 200,000 in Berlin, it struck me that the crux of this election isn’t experience, race or even – to a certain extent – the age-old battle between Republican and Democrat. No. Come 4 November 2008, what the American people will vote on is a choice between isolationism and a policy of global cooperation.
Throughout history, American isolationism has had a sporadic role in world politics, notably in 1914 at the outbreak of WWI. While George Bush’s attitude to foreign affairs doesn’t fall exactly into this category, his attitude has long been one of America versus The World, dividing the planet into those for the War on Terror and those against, an approach which has entailed precious little middleground and not much elbow-room for diplomacy. As a policy, isolationsim tends to suggest a self-assuredness that the country in question reigns supreme – in its own opinion, anyway – and therefore need not sully its hands in external affairs, except as a kind of global policeman. Bush has simply pushed this to the next logical point: active interference, rather than passive, but still with the view that America is prima inter pares.
Should McCain be elected President, it seems likely that this approach will continue, possibly followed by a return to genuine isolationism, should circumstances allow. Certainly, I can’t see the opposite happening. Almost exclusively, his pitch has been to the American people – pragmatic, in the sense that these are, after all, his voters, but symptomatic of a mindset which says: the rest of you can go hang. We haven’t asked for your opinion, and we sure as hell aren’t going to.
By contrast, Obama has set out not just to woo his constituency, but the world at large. And it’s working. Whether or not other nations like America or agree with its current foreign policy, it remains an indsiputable superpower, and for many governments, the thought of a President who might actually bring their kind of diplomacy to the table, regardless which party he belongs to, is an exceedingly welcome change. As far as campaigns go, it portrays foresight, shrewd politics and a view that America needs to take the rest of the world into consideration – to compromise, not just when a strongarm approach has failed, but because it’s good politics to do so.
But the question, as always, rests with American voters. Can enough of them be persuaded to care what the rest of the world thinks? Is the idea of a change in foreign policy more attractive than the prospect of same-old, same-old? Have the failings of the Bush government resonated strongly enough that McCain can’t play to the idea of change = danger, familiarity = safe? Does increased global confidence in the President rate as an important electoral consideration? Or is the idea of foreign policy beyond military commitments so far off the radar that when the polls open, everything will hinge on the pitch-and-toss of national concerns?
I can’t be sure. But as a citizen of the world beyond the States, I know what my plea to voters is.
Choose, America. But choose wisely.