In early August, I stepped off a small propeller plane onto a tiny runway in Zanzibar, Tanzania. Given Zanzibar's reputation as a rather touristy island, I expected to be greeted by vendors offering me various knickknacks and tour operators trying to sell me on a particular trip package. I didn't encounter any of these. Instead, a young man greeted me with great jubilance, introduced himself and then explained that he was Zanzibar's self-proclaimed "Director for Obama '08."
And he fit the part. He adorned the t-shirt complete with the flare of campaign buttons, carried literature, and more importantly, he knew all the polling numbers and intimate details of the primaries and general election. He even flagged for me that en route to my hotel I would see the "Obama Tree", a shrine of sorts to the candidate with a gigantic portrait propped up against a tree trunk in one of the main squares. Despite being far removed from the news in this tiny East African island, it became clear that with this guy around, I wouldn't even need to check my Blackberry for the latest updates.
As I watched the inauguration of our 44th president yesterday, I couldn't help but to think back to my brief encounter with the young campaign enthusiast in Zanzibar. I wondered where he was watching, what he had organized, and how he felt. For decades, we have sought to promote democracy, share American values, and put forth a democratic vision with our policies. At times this has proven more difficult than others mainly because democracy is more easily illustrated than it is articulated. In some parts of the world, the word "democracy" has been tainted with incorrect translations and associations. We had an opportunity these past two years, in a world increasingly connected through Google, YouTube, Facebook, and other digital media outlets, to live the Democracy 101 crash course. I met people from all around the world who were Twittering from the National Mall and the bleachers of Washington, DC's main roads. There was a barrage of status updates through online social networks, an overwhelming storm of blogs, and no shortage of uploaded videos from the day's events. This was the most accessible inauguration in history. Because of digital media and unprecedented global interest, more citizens of the world had digital box seats to watch, hear, and feel the democratic experience.
In between President Obama's oath of office and the parade to the White House, I went home to check email and see how different friends of mine throughout the world were watching. I heard remarkable stories of kids crowded around computers in Internet cafes, large gatherings in front of the satellite TV, and even people getting real-time mobile updates. In remote parts of Africa, kids crowded around hand-held radios like young New Yorkers used to do when Babe Ruth played in Yankees Stadium.
While it is a coincidence that the historic nature of this presidential election coincided with the first opportunity for the entire world to watch through various digital media outlets, what we experienced here in America is not a twist of fate. The world watched and we showed them what we mean when we talk about democracy and American values. It was public diplomacy at its best. Whether one is a Democrat or a Republican, it is in our national interest for the world to be glued to all forms of machinery and devices that will give them access to the founding principles that our nation was built upon. The more people respect, understand and appreciate the American democratic experience, the greater our moral authority and credibility to pursue the pressing international security issues that threaten global stability.
This week, America dealt a devastating blow to the Mugabes, Kim Jong Ils, Ahmadenijads, and Castros of the world. We didn't do it with bombs or military might, but with the powerful and public juxtaposition of our experience against theirs. In the words of our 44th President, these repressive leaders are now "on the wrong side of history."
Read more posts from the Dorm Room Diplomacy series.