Blue Europe and Red Asia
- By Dominique Moisi
- Oct. 23 2008 00:00
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U.S. presidential elections provide a near perfect test to understand the difference between European and Asian views on the world, even if the two continents are far from united internally. If you want the United States to lead by the power of example, you favor Senator Barack Obama. If you want to be reassured by the continuation of U.S. power in a traditional security sense, you probably prefer Senator John McCain.
Whereas a majority of Europeans -- with the exception of those who for historical and geographic reasons are obsessed with the return of the "Russian bear" -- support Obama, a majority of Asians, particular among the elite, seem to support McCain. This difference stems above all from strategic considerations, but it probably also contains a cultural dimension.
In Asia, Indonesia may look "European" in its Obama craze, but it essentially constitutes an anomaly, easily explainable by Obama's brief Indonesian upbringing. Otherwise, and for very different reasons, a majority of Asian elites are awaiting the growing possibility of an Obama victory with some bewilderment and even apprehension.
For example, Japanese elites tend to favor continuity over change. In their mind, the hard power of the United States is more important than its soft power, and their vision of a United States that is "bound to lead" is largely unchanged. For them, Washington is above all the strategic counterweight needed to balance Beijing.
The Chinese, too, may very likely be favoring McCain -- but for the opposite reason. The decline of the United States' image and influence in the world does not annoy them. As Asia's leading power, China has seized the mantle of "hope" once held in Washington. The United States could regain it under Obama, but not under McCain. Why favor change, when continuity works so well for you?
Indian elites reach the same conclusion for different reasons. The years under George W. Bush's presidency were viewed in a positive light because they coincide with the consolidation of India's global status and emergence as a key U.S. diplomatic partner in Asia.
But beyond strategic considerations, something else must be mentioned with prudence. It is too early to say that the "yellow man's burden" is about to replace Rudyard Kipling's "white man's burden" in world history. Asians are slow to acknowledge that power entails international responsibility. But Asians who have more than caught up with the West may have difficulty adjusting to the idea that the United States would for the first time in history not be headed by a white president. How can you define yourself to the West, when the West has so spectacularly and visibly changed its appearance, if not its essence?
In Europe, the reverse is true. The complex essence of Obama is an absolute plus. For the former colonial countries, who have no equivalent to Obama, to support him fully is a sort of exorcism, if not redemption. The United States is once more paving the way for what Europeans should be able to achieve one day with their own minorities -- a land of dreams made possible. In a more classical sense, the depth of anti-Bush sentiment in Europe explains the depth of pro-Obama feeling and Europeans' relative distancing from McCain's candidacy.
Europeans have felt oppressed by the United States' excessive demonstration of hard power. They would not mind if the next U.S. president carried out policies that were more ambitious at home as long as they were more modest abroad. They are in fact secretly wishing that in these tough economic times, at least part of the "culture of hope" incarnated by Obama would reverberate on them and transform them for the better. They want the United States not only to protect them, but to transform them.
The perception that Obama can transform the view that the United States and the West have of themselves is an important factor in the emotional gap that may exist between Asia and Europe on the eve of the presidential election. On that count, Asia tends to be a status quo continent, while Europe is a revisionist one. For many Europeans, a reinvention, or retransformation, of the United States is Europe's last hope.
It is a noble hope, but also a dangerous one, for dreams can easily turn into nightmares. That might very well happen if the next U.S. president fails to redress the financial and economic threats facing his country -- and ipso facto the rest of the world as well.
Dominique Moisi is a founder and senior adviser at the French Institute for International Relations. © Project Syndicate