Friday, June 13, 2008

A closer look at whether ‘the world’ will ‘accept’ Obama

Steve Benen, The Carpetbagger Report: A couple of days ago, the NYT’s Thomas Friedman sounded a slightly hyperbolic note about Barack Obama’s popularity on the global stage: “It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Democrats’ nomination of Obama as their candidate for president has done more to improve America’s image abroad … than the entire Bush public diplomacy effort for seven years.”
Well, if Obama’s nomination has done wonders for our image, just imagine what an Obama presidency would do, right? The WaPo’s Anne Applebaum suggested this week that this might not be as easy as we’d like, because, as she put it, “foreigners” might not “accept a black American president.”
I realize that this, too, may seem like a rather offensive question, particularly if one believes everything that one reads in newspapers…. But has Europe changed? And have Asia and the Middle East changed? I hate to put it so crudely, but — European newspaper reporting to the contrary — racism is not unique to the United States. The situation of ethnic minorities in Europe and Asia is completely different from that in the United States, and in many ways our societies aren’t comparable: Most nonwhite inhabitants of European societies are recent immigrants, not descendants of former slaves, and the particular circumstances of, say, the black Christian population in Arab-dominated Sudan are unique.
Nevertheless, it is safe to say that there is a distinct dearth of nonwhite politicians in Europe. The Indian caste system has an element of skin-color discrimination built in. Arab societies have their own history of trading in black slaves, and the existence in the Arab world of prejudice against black Africans is no secret. Periodically, African students in Moscow are beaten up on the street. Though it is certainly more severe in those countries that actually have large nonwhite populations, unreflective racism exists even in parts of the world that have barely any darker-skinned or nonnative inhabitants. Japan has been singled out by the United Nations for racist treatment of foreigners. And while some of the stares that black Americans say they get on the street in Warsaw or Prague reflect simple curiosity, some, I’m told, contain an element of hostility, too.
Given this, Applebaum argued, “do not be surprised if there is some backlash” against an Obama presidency overseas.
Applebaum’s column struck me as pretty misguided when it was published, but now there’s additional evidence to undermine her argument.
The Pew Global Attitudes Project surveyed 24 nations and not only found significant interest in the U.S. presidential race around the world, but also found broad support from the populaces for Obama.
In all but three nations, those polled express more faith in Obama than in McCain to “do the right thing regarding world affairs.” They were essentially tied in the USA. In Pakistan and Jordan, neither inspires much confidence.
“Obama obviously has an appeal that has crossed the waters,” says Andrew Kohut, who directs the Pew project. “Some of it may have to do with his being associated with opposition to the war in Iraq, which is consistent with views of people around the world. Some of it may have to do with his charismatic qualities and the fact that he’s different than the typical American presidential candidate.” […]
In most countries, Obama is also more trusted than President Bush. The contrast was particularly sharp in Europe, where Bush has been making a farewell tour this week. In France, where he visits today, 13% say they have “a lot” or some confidence in Bush to do the right thing. Six times as many, 84%, say that of Obama.
Now, I suppose it’s possible that there’s some kind of elaborate, international “Bradley effect” skewing the results, but it seems more likely to me that Applebaum’s column is little more than tiresome concern trolling.

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