The World Celebrates America’s Rebirth

Written by Nicholas Olczak. Posted in News, Opinion, Politics

Published on November 05, 2008 with No Comments

President Elect Barack Obama.
File Photo by Luke Thomas

By Nick Olczak

November 5, 2008

Mrs. Heftie stands on the sidewalk and clutches a placard for The Democrats.

“It’s special, it’s history in the making,” she said. “Something will happen today and it will change everything.”

She could be one of thousands of Americans on Election Day, showing their patriotism and excitement. But Mrs. Heftie is a Swiss citizen and she lives in Hong Kong. She tells me that her daughter is also campaigning for Obama in Canada, while her son is campaigning in London.

“They’re all campaigners with no passport,” she said.

They are examples of the unprecedented way the 2008 election has gripped non-Americans across the world. People everywhere feel like they are part of this moment. In recent history, perhaps only one other event has made the world stop and pay attention in this way. That was the September 11th attack on the US in 2001. The response to that attack has increasingly shown the world that what happens in America, and whom it chooses as President, affects them too.

“It’s not only important for Americans,” Heftie said. “It’s important for the entire world.”

This view is echoed each time I ask why non-Americans are so interested in the election. Andy Green, the spokesperson for Democrats Abroad in Hong Kong, says he has seen a “tremendous” amount of foreign interest in the elections this year.

“The problems of America automatically become the problems of the world,” Green said. “When America fails to act on global warming, everywhere suffers. When America goes and engages in wars that should not be authorised, millions of people suffer.”

One of those non-Americans interested in this year’s election is British citizen Alex Marsh. He came to the American Club in Hong Kong to follow the results because he senses how important this is going to be to people of all nationalities.

“It’s important to everybody in the world because of the relative strength of the United States,” Marsh argues. “I mean it’s not isolated. The United States doesn’t do anything in isolation. The economy’s important, the currency’s important, and whoever’s in charge is important.”

Marsh said that while standing watching the election results with the American Club’s jostling crowds, a sense of connection to the election became more emotional: “Everyone starts cheering and you get carried along.”

Inside the club, a mock Statue of Liberty stands by the door with stars and stripes draped on the walls. There is Starbuck’s coffee and CNN. Blue and red balloons nestle above the windows, while outside the boats slip by in the modern gleam of Hong Kong’s harbour. The club is a small pocket of America transplanted to the other side of the world.

But for the many non-Americans here today – the Chinese schoolgirls nervously watching, the Australian businessmen, the Swiss campaigners – this club, and the passion of the election, present an exciting new image of America, engaging them like never before.

“I think it’s showing them that not all Americans are the people you read about in the paper who support the Governments policies and actions,” said Jane Butler from the League of Women Voters. “It shows that we’re not all the wealthy who live in big houses and guzzle gas. It’s showing them how much we care.”

Butler feels that the Bush regime has “shredded” America’s image across the world. For her, this election, and particularly Obama’s charismatic campaign, have already begun to repair that damage and make people believe in America again.

“Whoever wins,” Butler said, “this election will go a long way to opening the doors to that shredded image being sewn back together.”

Peter Van Brannigan, an Australian businessman living in Hong Kong, agreed that Bush had seriously damaged America’s image in Australia. He believes that the practical implications of the election make little difference to foreigners, but the emergence of a progressive American society is something really significant.

“The real thing is that foreigners, not particularly Australians, see America as an idea,” he said.

I speak to a member of the US Consulate who proudly points out that this election is sending the world a powerful message about the strength of America’s democracy. For many Chinese citizens at the club, and for people in undemocratic countries across the world, the grassroots politics in America over the past year must be a powerful spectacle.

There is a student from Myanmar at the club. As the crowds dance around him and the televisions flicker, he keeps on laughing. When I ask him why, he tells me that he has never seen anything like this before.

There is one man at the core of this new image of America: President Elect Barack Obama. During his campaign he succeeded in making people across the world believe in America again. To see the extent of this, you only have to look at a recent Gallup poll that took a theoretical world vote on the election. In Norway. 71% of people chose Obama, while in Kenya it was 89%.

For Andy Green, the diversity of Obama’s history, the fact that he lived abroad and was raised in Hawaii, has made people of all nationalities feel he can relate to their needs.

“If Obama wins, it’s not that he’s going to be President for America,” Mrs Heftie told me early in the vote tallying, “but, in fact, for all of us around the world. It’s like the world has already voted.”

The belief of the world in Obama and the way he reshaped America’s image during his campaign really did make it feel like he had to win. People outside America were almost waiting for the Americans to catch up and confirm the shift they had already caught onto. When he won, the world and the American people were united in their exhilaration.

Obama has recognized the significance of the world’s opinion throughout his campaign. He took the almost unprecedented step of going to Europe midway through the year. Yesterday his victory speech reiterated this sense of speaking to a world that he had re-engaged.

“And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores,” Obama’s resonant voice called, “those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world. Our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared.”

I remembered walking through the Hong Kong streets late the previous evening and hearing radios crackle out from the pale glow of late night stalls. Their strange Chinese voices were punctuated by one name I knew – ‘Obama’ – the man who was reaching out across the world.

Hong Kong may not be a far-flung corner, but like many people in many different countries, today its citizens are celebrating a rebirth of an America with which they can reconnect.

Nicholas Olczak

Bio Nicholas Olczak is a freelance writer who comes from (the original) Boston in England, but who normally chooses to travel the world. He has contributed to publications in Hong Kong and the USA and enjoys delving into anything political or cultural. He currently lives on one of San Francisco's many hills.

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