Let's start by acknowledging that this election is not over. It looks quite favorable for Barack Obama and the Democrats, top Republicans I know are down in the dumps, it could be an historic Democratic victory on November 4th. But it ain't over till it's over, as, well, quite a few folks have said.
That said, we've spent so much time on US polls, which are resolving in a fairly clear-cut and predictable fashion.
What does the rest of the world think?
And what sort of challenges will counter the global opportunity that an Obama presidency might afford America?In his first international press conference, Barack Obama scored well in Jordan.
First, the global numbers with regard to Obama. And they are striking, indeed. The Gallup organization has polled over 70 nations around the world about the American presidential contest. The results show Barack Obama leading John McCain by about 4 to 1.
Now, there are a few caveats. In quite a few countries, the great majority of respondents had no opinion on the matter. And a number of key nations were not polled, such as Russia, China, Israel, Iraq, and Iran. Though I'm fairly certain that Obama would be favored in at least four of those five nations, not that he'd want the nod from one or two of them. (McCain was the favorite of Israeli voters prior to Obama's very high-profile visit in late summer. One poll I saw after the visit showed Obama slightly ahead in Israel.)
But we don't have those numbers. The results we do have show McCain besting Obama in only two countries. Those countries are Georgia (where McCain's friend Misha Saakashvili, who employed McCain's chief foreign policy advisor as his lobbyist, is president, and hasn't that worked out well for him?) and the Phillipines (where the U.S. Navy is quite popular, with many missing the fabled Subic Bay naval base). Obama and McCain are tied in Lithuania and Pakistan.
Obama is the clear favorite across every country in Latin America and Africa. He is also a huge favorite in such key US allies as Britain (60-15), Australia (64-14), Germany (62-10), Japan (66-15), and South Korea (50-24).
The implications are obvious. Obama has the global popularity that no American president has had in a great many years. Bill Clinton was pretty popular around the world, but we haven't seen anything like this since the days of John F. Kennedy.
This was obvious to Team McCain, as well, as you know from my columns and can see anew in this coming Sunday's New York Times Magazine cover story on the turmoil in Republican ranks. It was critically important to McCain to stop Obama from moving into an insurmountable lead following his big trip to the Middle East and Europe. Which gave rise to the famed "celebrity" ads mocking Obama for his popularity abroad.
While the McCain campaign succeeded in blocking Obama from "floating out of reach" after his extraordinary Berlin speech to more than 200,000 people, it also lost its focus on its own candidacy in the process. But that's not the point of this piece.
Obama has a tremendous opportunity, assuming his election as the next president of the United States, to give America a far more positive image in the world than it has enjoyed since President Bush squandered the international good will accorded our country after 9/11.Barack Obama reassured many with this appearance in Sderot alongside Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
But while we have been obsessing about attack ads, Bill Ayers, Sarah Palin, and other relative trivialities, major things have been going on. Let's look at some of them. Each will be very challenging for a President Obama.
** For starters, there will be a global economic summit of sorts in Washington on November 15th. President Bush moved to get in on the global action after the European Union made it known that it would establish a council to oversee the world's 30 largest banks, many of which are US-based. Bush has already, amazingly, adopted social democratic policies to deal with the massive financial crisis. But he wasn't going to let Europe run things. Nevertheless, he's a lame duck, who has demonstrably failed again and again.
A President Obama will have to hit the ground running to influence this summit just a week and a half after the election. And signal ways in which he will influence follow-on meetings around the world even before he is inaugurated on January 20th. This is a crisis that won't wait.Russia, Iran, and Qatar -- which control over 60% of the world's natural gas reserves -- are forming a "Gas Troika."
** One good thing about the global economic slump for America is the slump in crude oil prices and, hence, gasoline prices. But while OPEC -- which today announced a big production cut -- struggles to keep the oil price up, another new group is forming to do much the same with natural gas. Russia, Iran, and Qatar have formed a "Gas Troika," as the Russian media call it. The three countries control over 60% of the world's natural gas reserves, natural gas being the preferred fossil fuel for electric power generation, as it is the most clean-burning of the fossil fuels.
This is troubling for the US on several levels. First, it indicates that Iran is hardly being isolated, as the Bush/Cheney strategy would have it. With Russia and Iran collaborating closely on energy strategy, it is more and more likely that Moscow will provide Iran with the most advanced anti-aircraft defense systems. (Qatar, one of the lesser known world powers, is a Persian Gulf state which hosts and largely funds the leading Middle Eastern news network, Al Jazeera, which is headquartered in Doha.) In addition, the three countries could well develop the whip hand over natural gas supplies as they run out in the future and gas in liquefied form, LNG, becomes a major factor in world energy markets.
And what does this mean for Iran's nascent nuclear weapons program? Perhaps nothing good.
A President Obama will need to get ahead of the curve on global energy strategy or risk finding that future natural gas pricing, and supply, is set in Moscow, Tehran, and Doha.
** For all of John McCain's rhetoric after the brutally brief Russia-Georgia War that "we are all Georgians," there is little evidence that many others feel that way. The European Union essentially let Russia do what it wanted, with little more than a harshly worded press release or two in "retaliation." Now Germany's foreign minister has made it clear that there will be no Georgia or Ukraine in NATO.
A President Obama will have to decide fairly quickly what America's stance is towards Russia and its desire to dominate the "post-Soviet space" surrounding its borders. First up is the question of the missile shield to be based in Poland and the Czech Republic, supposedly aimed at an Iranian threat which does not actually exist, but really aimed at countering Russia.
** The so-called status of forces agreement in Iraq, i.e., the UN-sanctioned agreement giving cover of law to US military operations in Iraq, runs out at the end of the year. Right now, there is no agreement on a path forward.
A President Obama will have to weigh in quickly on what he wants on the ground in Iraq as US forces begin to transition out of their extraordinarily active role in that troubled country, still very unsettled over five years after the invasion that President Bush, John McCain, and most conservatives would go off so well.
** America's position in Afghanistan is sliding toward failure. I remember the first of the Democratic presidential forums, in February 2007 in Carson City, Nevada. There I asked then presidential candidate Joe Biden about the Afghanistan situation, and he forecast precisely the set of problems we find ourselves contending with now.
A President Obama is going to have to figure out to stabilize the situation, both with more troops -- from the US and increasingly recalcitrant NATO allies -- and with new and more political approaches. Can we cut a deal with elements of the Taliban? Can a coalition government be formed in Kabul? These are thorny questions that a President Obama will have to grapple with right away, even before January 20th.
** Pakistan is sliding towards the abyss. The only Islamic nuclear power is increasingly unstable. A President Obama will have to find ways to keep the country stable -- and those nuclear weapons out of unfriendly hands -- even as he considers how to go after Al Qaeda cadres using the country as a safe haven.Russian strategic bombers engaged in exercises in Venezuela over the summer.
** As he does these things, a President Obama has to figure out America's relationship with Russia. Moscow can be very helpful in helping rein in Iran and in aiding in Afghanistan, where Russian support was key in taking down the Taliban in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. But relations are poor now, Russia is angry about the 15-year long bipartisan strategy of NATO encirclement of its country, and it's feeling its oats after swiftly crushing the Georgian military when McCain's friend Misha Saakashvili obligingly provided a pretext with his offensive against the breakaway province of South Ossetia.
Now Russia is forging a deeper alliance with OPEC member Venezuela, sending first strategic bombers and now a naval squadron to the Caribbean. It's making moves to establish a greater foothold in the Middle East, with potential bases in Libya and Tunisia. And Gazprom, chaired until recently by President Dmitry Medvedev, will manage a new Russian-Venezuelan oil and natural gas consortium.Russia and India have developed the world's fastest cruise missile.
It's even developed, with the former Soviet ally India -- an emerging superpower of the middle part of the 21st century -- the world's fastest cruise missile. And, with all of these things coming at the behest of Russia's long-term power broker, former intelligence chieftain Vladimir Putin, it's helping India with its space program.With the Arctic ice cap melting due to climate change, the great Petro Rush is about to begin.
** And there is another Russian-related matter, the new Arctic Petro Rush. As the Arctic ice cap melts, due to climate change, a vast storehouse of oil and natural gas beneath what was once deep ice pack becomes much more readily available.
The best estimates are that fully 25% of the world's oil and natural gas reserves can be developed in the Arctic region. Once the ice cap has been largely dispensed with. So Russia, along with lesser power such as Canada and Norway, is staking a claim to the Arctic region.
Will a President Obama join in the Arctic Petro Rush? Or will he instead note the tragic irony of the situation? That by cooking the planet we are making it possible to cook the planet even further as we feed our fateful addiction to fossil fuels?
These are just some of the things that a President Obama -- now acclaimed around the world -- will have to make fast and hard calls on in the not terribly distant future.
Meanwhile, of course, presuming he wins the election, he can bask for a little while longer in his global acclaim. Here's what Britain's new Conservative star Boris Johnson, the new mayor of London, said about the Obama Change today in his Telegraph column endorsing him. Of course, his endorsement of Obama, as you'll see, is at least as much a denunciation of what the Republican Party has become as it is anything else.
There are all sorts of reasons for hoping that Barack Hussein Obama will be the next president of the United States. He seems highly intelligent. He has an air of courtesy and sincerity. Unlike the current occupant of the White House, he has no difficulty in orally extemporising a series of grammatical English sentences, each containing a main verb.
Unlike his opponent, he visibly incarnates change and hope, at a time when America desperately needs both. An Obama win could signify the end of race-based politics The legacy of George Bush may take years, if not decades, to determine.
But at present he seems to have pulled off an astonishing double whammy.
However well-intentioned it was, the catastrophic and unpopular intervention in Iraq has served in some parts of the world to discredit the very idea of western democracy.
The recent collapse of the banking system, and the humiliating resort to semi-socialist solutions, has done a great deal to discredit - in some people's eyes - the idea of free-market capitalism.
Democracy and capitalism are the two great pillars of the American idea.
To have rocked one of those pillars may be regarded as a misfortune.
To have damaged the reputation of both, at home and abroad, is a pretty stunning achievement for an American president.