Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The World Wonders

Last night while I was on the phone with the tech support guy from Romania and while we were waiting for the program to load, we ended up chatting. Based on our conversation, I figured out that he was about 21 or so and therefore had grown up in the post-Communist era. For those of us of a certain age, it’s amazing to think that an entire generation has passed since the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact.

He asked me rather tentatively about the presidential election; he started out asking when it would actually take place. I told him, and then he asked whether or not a lot of Americans were paying attention to it. I am not the most objective observer, but I told him that by and large I thought that with the Olympics, the latest summer blockbusters at the cineplex, and the fact that the conventions haven’t even taken place yet, most people weren’t really concentrating on the latest tit-for-tat ad war going on between the candidates. And then I asked him if they were paying attention to it in Romania.

Absolutely, he replied; many of the people he knew were fascinated by the process and the fact that America might elect a black man as president. I tried to keep my preferences out of the conversation, and while he was careful not to express a preference for a candidate, it was clear that he — and a lot of other people — are watching what we do here.

And why shouldn’t they? Like it or not, who we elect as the next president will have an impact around the world. In spite of the vaudeville approach we take to this exercise in democracy, the other residents of this planet know that the choices we make in the voting booths across America in November will touch their lives. The American dollar, however awkwardly, is the basis for the rest of the world’s economy, and even the casual traveler around the world, be they in Windsor, Ontario, or Red Square in Moscow, gets asked if they want fries with that at McDonald’s. And there is nowhere you can go in the world without tripping over America’s influence in music, entertainment, and fashion, even if the clothes themselves are made in China. As has been often noted, we conquered the world after World War II without really meaning to. So, like it or not, we have an obligation to the rest of the world to choose wisely next November. There is more at stake than just what goes on here in our fifty states, and the world watches, waits, and wonders.

This is no great revelation. We’ve known that for generations. But clearly it’s never really been as important to the rest of the world as it is now who sits in the Oval Office, and I don’t just mean to the leaders in Europe, Russia, Asia, or the Middle East. We often forget the connections between ourselves — you and me — and the other people half-way around the world, like the tech support guy working the overnight shift in Romania. And it must look odd to them to see us choosing candidates based on who we’d like to have a beer with, who can handle a bowling ball, or who scores political points by making unflattering if not misogynistic and racist comparisons to a celebrity that no one outside of the pages of People or Access Hollywood care about. They must really wonder why those things matter to us; don’t we realize what we’re doing here? They must get the feeling that they’re watching an excerpt from Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator where Adenoid Hynkle, dictator of Tomania, does a graceful ballet of bouncing a globe of the world around his office like a balloon. So after eight years of fecklessness, bullying, and xenophobia by an administration whose sole purpose was to ensure the permanent majority of a political party and whose contribution to foreign policy has been staggering — in both senses of the word — the rest of the world is understandably curious, if not wary, of who will come next. For all the mockery the McCain campaign gave Barack Obama about his world tour last month, the reception the junior senator from Illinois received from both world leaders and the public showed the relief they feel at the possibility of a new direction and how much more cooperation there would be with a president who knows not to rub the Chancellor of Germany the wrong way — in both senses of the word. (I can’t help but think there’s a tinge of jealousy in the McCain camp; Barack Obama got rave reviews from Kuwait to London; John McCain got laughed at for parading through a Baghdad rug market in a flack jacket.)

I’m not saying we have to make our choices based solely on what the world thinks of us, but it is important to remember that we’re not alone on this planet. If one of the factors we use in the choice of a president is his ability to understand foreign policy, it’s not just about dealing with the Axis of Evil and trading with China, the largest country in the world that owns most of our debt. It’s also about the tech support guy in Romania who is of the first generation of his country to experience democracy and has the overwhelming curiosity to ask a complete stranger from America — calling on a cell phone with a question about software — a question about who will win the presidential election in November.