Look, you don't have to stay till Jan. 20
“Nous Sommes Tous Américains”
History Grants a Do-Over
On Sept. 13, 2001 , the French daily Le Monde ran an editorial on its front page with a headline that spoke of a world of grief and from a world of solidarity: “We’re All Americans.”
“Just as in the gravest moments of our own history,” wrote Jean-Marie Colombani, the newspaper’s editor then, “how can we not feel profound solidarity with those people, that country, the United States, to whom we are so close and to whom we owe our freedom, and therefore our solidarity? How can we not be struck at the same time by this observation: The new century has come a long way.”
Nov. 4 was another “we’re all Americans” moment. Though post-9/11 solidarity was squandered then turned into antagonism unlike any the United States had known, Colombani’s words can be written anew. With Barack Obama’s election as the first minority president of a democracy, the new century—which began in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall, was hijacked in 2001 and outmatched last Tuesday—has come a long way. There’s solidarity again the world over. This time, they danced in the streets of Paris, they clinked mugs and pints in the pubs of London, they went sleepless in Berlin, hanging on those election returns from Pennsylvania and Ohio as if they were their own. Before the election, the conservative press made fun of Obama’s wild popularity abroad, underlining the obvious: The world doesn’t vote.
But it does.
American leaders—Republicans and Democrats—take it as gospel that the United States is the “leader of the free world,” whether the free world agrees or not (it generally does). They also take it as gospel that the United States is the model democracy for the entire world, whether the world sees it that way or not (it does not). On either count, a wise leader doesn’t presume to lead those it scorns. But scorn is usually what 21 st-century conservative reactionaries heap on other countries’ opinions of the United States even as they claim to be their “shining city on a hill.” That’s one of the reasons John McCain was disliked abroad while Obama was admired. McCain wanted to be the world’s commander in chief while deriding its voices. Obama isn’t interested in being the world’s commander in chief so much as its voluntary guidepost and listener—while reserving the right to repudiate its voices when necessary. People abroad see the difference. They don’t long for American leadership any more than the student-demonstrators of Tiananmen Square who brandished the Statue of Liberty 20 years ago longed to be Americans. Then, as now, they long for universal ideals the United States stood for, and they could aspire to—on their terms.
The ballot box isn’t the only way the world’s votes affect the United States. Strong alliances improve national security, trade relations, cultural exchanges and mutual understanding. Weak or lacking alliances undermine it all, ultimately impoverishing the United States economically and endangering it strategically. The more hostile casting of those votes, perverse as it is to call them votes, wraps itself in the false martyrdom of death-cult terrorism. There’s a reason it attacks the United States and not, say, Iceland. Obama won’t necessarily stop the attacks, especially not from Islamists willing to murder their own to make a point. But the mere fact of his election is effecting a transformation from resentment to respect, if not awe, in that geographic crescent of anti-Americanism where admiration for the likes of Osama bin Laden has seemed inversely proportional to the hate for America.
It’s easy to get the solidarity of Europeans, Berliners especially, 200,000 of whom gave Barack Obama his largest crowd yet when he visited there in July. It’s not so easy to get it from Iran, Pakistan, the Arab Gulf and the Palestinian territories. But they’ve been celebrating there, too. A Christian Palestinian street artist in the West Bank is hawking portraits of Obama holding an olive branch. A Muslim shopkeeper in Gaza is selling coffee mugs imprinted with the classic portrait of Obama in front of the U.S. Capitol (next to mugs imprinted with portraits of Yasser Arafat). The young Gaza student who made minor headlines here last week for making cold calls, through an Internet connection, to undecided voters in battleground states on behalf of Obama doesn’t seem so strange anymore.
McCain wanted to create a “League of Democracies.” Obama already has his league, one broad enough that the sun never sets on it. It’s an empire of hope, crushing with expectations—but also possibilities.