Barack Obama’s call for change resonates as deeply in Europe as it does in the US. The new leader of the Free World is seen as a unifying symbol, capable of rebuilding the bridges that the Bush administration burned down in the last eight years. Hope has been restored.
Last July, more than 200.000 people gathered in the Tiergarten Park in Berlin, Germany to hear US Senator Barack Obama’s message of change. Obama promised to forge new partnerships with old allies, to tear down walls of division, and rebuild the bridges between the US and Europe that the Bush administration had set on fire in previous years with their unilateral ‘you-are-either-with-us-or-against-us-type of arrogance in world affairs. He would heal the divide and enter a new period of cooperation in eradicating common threats like nuclear proliferation, global warming, poverty and genocide.
In the US, this event was interpreted as a testimony to Obama’s ability to restore the world’s faith in American leadership and idealism. Looking back, it seems obvious that it was a moment of far greater importance. It was the moment that Barack Obama became the leader of the Free World.
From that moment on, in Europe and beyond, Obama’s campaign for the presidency has been followed with more interest than any other presidential race in American history. Outside the US, he seems to have been accepted as a unifying symbol, not only for his will to reconnect Europe and the US, but in the sense that Barack Obama offers people genuine hope. Perhaps, the sentiment is best described in a congratulatory letter to Obama from French President Nicholas Sarkozy: “Your election raises in France, in Europe, and beyond throughout the world, immense hope.”
Obama; the Man, the Myth, the Campaign
“For one thing, the President of the United States of America is the most powerful individual in the world,” says Baldur Þórhallsson, professor of political science at the University of Iceland, when asked why the world shows such interest in the US presidential election. “Second, it has to do with the media. The big media that distributes news around the world is more or less located in the US, and they have deemed this as something that the world should be interested in. Third, every single nation has a great interest to protect when it comes to its relation to the US.”
But what makes this election so special? Why has Barack Obama sparked greater interest in people then any presidential candidate before him? According to Þórhallsson, Obama’s popularity, directly or indirectly, reflects the unpopularity of the Bush Administration. “There is a common perception that the US government is a threat. That is why this election has gathered so much attention, because here is a man, Obama, that says he wants a change, not only on domestic issues, but also foreign policy.”
As far as Iceland goes, Þórhallsson says we should not expect great changes to our relationship with the US. “The relationship mostly goes through institutions and government officials, whether it is the Ministry for Foreign Affairs or the Central Bank. Obama’s own position towards Iceland is of course unknown, but I don’t expect that the position of government officials will change a great deal.”
Is the Left Back?
The Democratic Party won a decisive victory, not only in the presidential election, but also in the Senate, and the House of Representatives. Does this mean that the left is back? “I think you would have to interpret this as a swing to the left in US politics,” says Þórhallsson. “The values of liberalism and the Republicans’ emphasis on religion and family values, does not seem to be as widely accepted as before, and there is more interest in governmental participation, both when it comes to health insurance and social welfare issues. The opposition to the war in Iraq also plays a role. There is increased pressure on the administration to stop making unilateral decision, and more pressure to go through international institutions and forge allies with other nations.”
Does that mean that Europe, where politics have moved towards the right in recent years, will also swing back? “It is hard to say, but it is likely. The values of liberalism, and the emphasis on family values and religion have become more obvious in European politics during the time of the Bush administration, because these issues have been so obvious in the US. We have seen conservative parties in continental Europe adopt this stance. American domestic politics often tend to influence European domestic politics. But what has happened now is that the average voter in the US has moved closer to the average voter in Europe.”
Paul F. Nikolov is well acquainted with politics on both sides of the Atlantic. Born in the USA, the former Grapevine journalist is currently an alternate Member of Parliament in Iceland. “What this means for Iceland, specifically, I think, is that you’ll notice that in Obama’s victory speech he made a special point to address the rest of the world, and stated: America is back! I think we are going to see a lot more multilateral foreign policy, and building a partnership with other countries, specifically NATO countries,” Paul says.
“Specifically, just for Iceland though, Obama’s energy plan is a lot more comprehensive in terms of renewable energy resources. Geothermal energy is a pretty untapped idea in the US, many states that could, are not implementing it, such as in the Rockies – Wyoming for example – where there is great geothermal activity. Because of Obama’s call for renewable energy, I think there could be a great opportunity for a partnership between Iceland and the US, for Iceland to teach Americans about geothermal energy and sharing their technology with America.
Nikolov agrees that Obama’s presidency is perceived as a unifying symbol in Europe. “My European friends, when they have talked to me in the past few months, have said: ‘Please don’t screw this up! You have to elect that man.’ I definitely think he is going to serve his purpose as a unifier. But, it really came as a surprise to me how many people are excited about this presidency. If you look at the last issue of the Economist, they did a map called ‘If the World Could Vote,’ showing what countries supported which candidate, and it was overwhelmingly in favor of Obama.
So Europe is a blue state?
“If you want to put it like that, then yes, Europe is definitely a blue state.”