US elections – Up to the occasion

If the Obama phenomenon is confirmed in the public vote on 4 November, the repercussions in US foreign policy will be huge

This article originally appeared in Spanish in El Pais on 3 November.

Regardless of who wins tomorrow, November 4th, the greatness of American democracy should be celebrated, capable of offering its citizens a choice between two candidates who, personal tastes aside, stand for themselves and their own ideas, not the party apparatus which have led them to power. In Obama’s case, his unexpected victory in the Primaries, the millions of dollars in small, individual donations received by his campaign, and the thousands of volunteers who back his candidacy, give a very precise idea of just to what extent the electoral process rests on an open and vibrant society. Once again, the dynamism of the American political system contrasts with the prevailing arthritis of the old continent where, even in democracies as young as our own, party political machines have managed in a very short space of time to snuff out the slightest spark of internal debate, turning themselves into something alien, as impossible as they are indispensable. If moth balls and gathering dust are anything to go by, Europe looks more like the place where democracy has been working away uninterruptedly for the last two hundred years.

Moreover, if the American people choose Obama, they will thoroughly revitalise the very idea of democracy, unfortunately so discredited in so many parts of the world (mainly due to US foreign policy), restoring not only the lost prestige squandered in Bush’s eight years of intellectual and moral mismanagement, but also decisively contributing to spreading it throughout the world (and this despite the fact that “democracy”, that beautiful word, in not mentioned anywhere in the American Constitution). Because although it may be technically incorrect to say the election of Obama amounts to a descendant of slavery taking power of the mightiest nation in the world (at the end of the day, Obama is the son of a white anthropologist and a scholarship student from Kenya, but he was raised initially by his mother and later by his maternal grandparents), Obama, Afro-Americans, and the rest of the world have decided that’s the way it should be seen, which is really all that matters. It’s certainly not bad at all for a country which we normally consider highly racist, especially compared to Spain, where immigrants are simply invisible from public life. 

If the Obama phenomenon is confirmed, the repercussions in foreign policy will be huge. Although the prophets of doom tell us not to expect too much, basing their argument on Europe’s failure to understand the US, a country apparently enslaved by 9/11, isolationist by nature and subjugated by God, firearms and the free market, there are reasons for hope. Yes, we can. If a Texan without a passport is ultimately succeeded in the White House by a person of mixed race who attended public school in Indonesia and has walked the poor suburbs of Nairobi to visit far off relatives, that’s really not bad at all. As Obama himself reminds us in his book, “The Audacity of Hope”, witnessing the consequences of a foreign policy which supports corrupt Generals who violate human rights at first hand in the back-streets of Jakarta is not the same thing as hearing about them in the corridors of Washington or at embassy cocktails.

Europeans, it ought to be said, conscious of our powerlessness, have a tendency to project our desires and frustrations onto the United States, so that our foreign policy is often a commentary approving or condemning Washington’s more than something with its own personality. That’s why, just for a change, the day after the elections and knowing the outcome, it  might be a good time for Europeans to make a list of the things we want and are prepared to do (really do, not just on paper) and go to Washington to compare and contrast with the winning candidate. Consequently, if Obama wins, I’ll be more concerned about Europe being up to the occasion than whether the new President is just as we would like him to be. And what if McCain wins? More reason still to be concerned about Europe’s capacity to be relevant at a time when the world is re-aligning.


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Head, ECFR Madrid
Senior Policy Fellow

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