Democracy Calling

05/25/2011 12:30 pm ET

Hello, this is democracy calling. Whatever you read in the coming months, the American primaries are not another transatlantic electoral fiasco. They are the opposite. They are a nation testing its potential leaders by openly arguing, wavering, splitting, befriending, feuding, cohering and ultimately validating. Would that other democracies did the same. When so much about American democracy is murky, its elections, warts and all, are what America should be trumpeting to the world, not its ideological sanctimony or its military firepower.

This is all the more true since today there is not one American president to be voted into office but two. One belongs to domestic America but the other belongs to the world. The first president is America's business. While those who know and love that country may be concerned at its economic and political health -- and therefore intrigued by the contest -- this president is the one most voters have in mind.

The globalized president is a different matter. This leader must represent America's values -- and consequent actions -- everywhere that is touched by American policy. His or her decisions benefit or afflict millions of people, rich and poor, in dozens of countries on every continent. Yet they have no vote.

Iraqis, Afghans, Palestinians, Israelis, Pakistanis, Colombians, Brazilians, Russians, Chinese have no means of saying yes or no to decisions taken in Washington that may intimately affect their families, their security, their jobs and prospects. Nobody accounts to them or invites them to any caucus. Few of them enjoy democratic privileges even in their own countries. Yet the next president of the United States can mean life or death.

When I was in Pakistan recently, I asked a former army officer how he intended to vote in his forthcoming elections. He said he would vote for a religious party, an answer that surprised me. But it was, he said, the only way a Pakistani could vote against George Bush.

The man was expressing a now widespread aversion to America, especially in Europe and Asia. It is not usually an antagonism to Americans or to America's democracy or culture. It is a response to aggressive policies with which many profoundly disagree yet over which they have no control, other than by punishing those they see as America's collaborators.

I believe that this so-called "crisis of anti-Americanism" derives from nothing more complex than a bitter sense of disenfranchisement. For all the words spoken on globalization, few are expended on accountability. The greatest irony of modern history is that this sense of personal disempowerment, which the whole American enterprise was founded to correct, should now be directed against America itself. The arrogance of George III has become the arrogance of George Bush.

All three presidential candidates have qualifications to be this global president. In public statements they have acknowledged the strategic mistakes made in America's attempt to police the world through a "war on terror." All have proposals for restoring America relations with the world. Leadership cannot exist if others will not follow. America cannot regulate the world under Bush's banner that "he who is not with us is against us." It does not work.

The candidates for the global presidency will not be judged by experience, programme, oratory or novelty. They will not be judged by the prospect of likely success in office, which is always unknowable in foreign affairs. Few American presidents are seen to have been successes on leaving office. The art of presidency is that of managing perceived failure.

The candidates will rather be judged by what they symbolise, by the package of expectations that they carry with them to the White House. Here it is simply incontrovertible that the election of Barack Obama would transform, indeed electrify, America's image worldwide.

Monochrome would become colour. A drone of antagonism would turn into a cry of pleasure. With the genes of an Irish/American and a Kenyan, and the nurture of Hawaii, Indonesia and Chicago, Obama has personal roots in four continents. In choosing a president for a world half of which America seeks to evangelise, voters could hardly find a candidate better cast. He embodies a yearning expectation of a new contract and a new beginning.

Obama's novelty remains a strength and a weakness, but there is no excuse for regarding him as shallow. Not only is he a serving senator but his elegant early memoir, Dreams from my Father, and his more recent The Audacity of Hope reveal a remarkably thoughtful and complex man with a gift for language and an acute sense of the world about him.

These books display no anguish in Obama's ambiguous identity, but an awareness of its richness. He offers the calmest discussion of the politics of race that I have read. He is conscious of the tension between America's battered interventionism and John Quincy Adams's warning "not to go abroad in search of monsters to destroy, nor become the dictatress of the world." The issues are not discussed in the manner of an ingénue.

Obama's published prospectus must raise expectations, especially abroad, that no president could possibly meet, but it gives his candidature a substance that I had not expected from his platform performances. They offer not the remotest justification for Clinton implying that he is a security risk.

All this may cut no ice among the famously pragmatic American electorate. In election year voters have domestic concerns and the outside world is seen through the far end of the telescope. But they should bear in mind that they are electing not one president but two. When they go to the polls, they carry with them the eager proxies of half the world.