- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2008




While Americans are just getting ready for the presidential campaign with the two contenders receiving their party nominations, and while the race seen from here is extremely close, foreigners seem to think it is already over - with Democratic candidate Barack Obama the landslide winner. The encomiums in the foreign media have called Mr. Obama variously “the black Kennedy,” “the new Abraham Lincoln,” “the new Mandela,” “the new Dalai Lama” and even “Tony Blair of 11 years ago.” Sen. Obama struck a strong chord overseas, even before he won the Democratic primaries because there are so few example of an ethnic minority reaching the highest pinnacle of government in other countries. Although the United States has never elevated a woman to the White House, much of the rest of the world has long been used to female presidents, prime ministers, empresses and monarchs.

Mr. Obama’s novelty value is such that the foreign media immediately dropped Hillary Clinton like a sack of potatoes as soon as the primary season got under way. And there is not much chance that they will be impressed by Republican candidate John McCain’s choice of a woman to share his ticket. Not only is Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin too conservative for many of America’s critics - there is even a widely-shown video of her shooting a gun - but most foreign media invariably side with the Democratic contender. Recent favorites have included Bill Clinton, Al Gore and John Kerry - not to mention JFK, whom Mr. Obama is widely purported to resemble.

For many outside the United States, the idea of a female political leader is not nearly as exotic as it is for Americans. Foreign visitors to America often ask why this is so - usually with an undertone that this great country is at heart male chauvinist as well as racist (Both notions have taken a real blow in this election cycle.) Mrs. Clinton has spoken about finally breaking through the glass ceiling after the “18 million cracks” she made in this hypothetical structure by winning so many votes in the Democratic primaries. But abroad, women leaders are far from a new phenomenon and the “glass ceiling” has been history for a long time.

Europe has had many strong female leaders, such as Elizabeth I of England, Queen Victoria and Catherine the Great of Russia, going back to times when monarchs really counted. Today, Denmark and the Netherlands have queens who have served with distinction. But the most powerful modern female leaders have been those holding elected office. One immediately thinks of Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Angela Merkel in Germany. But France, Norway, Turkey and others have had female prime ministers. In Denmark a woman is the leader of the opposition. And in other parts of the world, the phenomenon is widespread. One has only to think of Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, Benazir Bhutto and Corazon Aquino to mention a few.

As for Mr. Obama, what the world finds so fascinating by his presidential campaign (though the selection of Sen. Joseph Biden as a running mate must have been a bit of a downer in this context) is the fact that it is in fact unique. In no European country, nor in most of the world has a minority candidate achieved the necessary cross-over to be a contender for the highest office in the land. While Europe is still struggling to integrate its racial, ethnic and religious minorities, the United States has moved way ahead.

For those who observe American politics up close, Mr. Obama’s rise is not that surprising. The rise of governors from ethnic minorities is a case in point from Colorado to Massachusetts to New Mexico and Louisiana. And Republicans like Clarence Thomas, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice have helped pave the way for the presidential candidate. Americans can be remarkably colorblind in their selection of leaders.

Yet for the world, Mr. Obama has burst on the scene like a deus ex machine. Right now, foreigners are living vicariously through the American election cycle a dream of racial integration that they themselves are far from achieving, despite all the lip service. Whether this image of the United States will survive the actual election in November may be somewhat in doubt if the Obama-Biden ticket goes down to defeat. Yet for the moment, the United States has achieved a new status in the eyes of the world.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.



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