TOPICS > Politics

U.S. Election Grabs Intense Interest Overseas

June 12, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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The 2008 presidential election has sparked the world's attention, with some looking ahead to possible foreign policy shifts under a new administration, a new poll shows. Reporters from international media outlets gauge foreign reaction to the historic race.
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RAY SUAREZ: Finally tonight, the foreign fascination with the U.S. presidential contest. Judy Woodruff has the story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This year’s campaign is grabbing the attention of millions of people overseas. A poll released today by the Pew Research Center, surveying more than 24,000 people in 24 countries, found that many believe the next president may well change U.S. foreign policy for the better and that, just about everywhere, greater numbers express confidence in presidential candidate Barack Obama than in John McCain.

The survey also found favorable views of the United States have increased modestly since 2007 in 10 of 21 countries.

For more now, we get four views from around the world. Hisham Melhem, he’s Washington bureau chief for Al Arabiya, a Middle East satellite news channel.

Martin Klingst, he’s Washington bureau chief Die Zeit, a German newsweekly.

Freelance journalist Mvemba Dizolele, he is originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

And Nayan Chanda, he’s editor of YaleGlobal Online Magazine. He is an Indian citizen.

Gentlemen, thank you all for being with us.

And, first, let me turn to you, Martin Klingst. How much interest is there not just in Germany, but in all of Western Europe in this election compared to previous elections?

MARTIN KLINGST, Die Zeit Weekly Newspaper: Oh, there’s great interest. I tell you, there’s a lot more interest than in 2004 and 2000. I think that has to do with the candidates, first of all, this very fascinating primary between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

And I think you know the Europeans like those stories, and they like personalized stories, and I think they look at Barack Obama like a love story, you know? They think of him as a black Kennedy, a dynamic figure, friendly figure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Did you say “Kennedy”?

MARTIN KLINGST: Yes, a black Kennedy, they sometimes say. And they look at Michelle and Barack Obama like looking at Jacqueline Onassis and John F. Kennedy.

So I think they have a great admiration for what is going on here. And I think having a nominee who is an African-American also changes the picture of the United States.

Obama draws intense interest

Nayan Chanda
YaleGlobal Online Magazine
A country which has been associated for so long for slavery, with slavery, and for segregation, and the stories of Rodney King, and stories of Willie Horton... all that has created a backdrop against which Obama's rise is absolutely amazing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me turn to you, Mvemba Dizolele. I can't ask you to speak for the entire African continent, but you are in touch not only with Congo, but with other countries. How much interest? What are you hearing?

MVEMBA DIZOLELE, Freelance Journalist: Tremendous interest. I remember, Judy, as I kid, I followed somehow remotely Carter, Reagan, all those people. They were major events.

But today, when you follow Obama and McCain and others, it's a mega-event. It's on the scale of the soccer World Cup, you know?

So people follow this every day. The excitement is huge. For Africans in general, this is one of their own. So they see a son of Africa who finally gets a chance.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In Obama...

MVEMBA DIZOLELE: In Obama that is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: ... whose father, of course, was from Kenya.

MVEMBA DIZOLELE: Exactly. Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to you, Hisham Melhem, the Middle East, how does it look?

HISHAM MELHEM, Al Arabiya: Well, there's always interest in the American elections, because there's nothing that comes close to, in the terms of rituals. It's unique, even by European standards.

But this year, the word "fascination" is the right word. There's a tremendous fascination with the American race, particularly between Obama and Hillary Clinton, during the monumental primary struggle.

But Obama, because of his ethnicity, because of his narrative, because of his biography, because of the way he approaches the world, and because he represented a departure from the past, and the fact that you have for the first time in the history, not only of the United States, but the Western world, a man of African descent is at the cusp of becoming probably the next president of the United States.

This never happened in the last 500 years of European history. And in that sense, he captured the imagination and the fascination of people.

And at the same time, people are asking questions, I mean, questions that reflect maybe their own prejudices. Would they tell you, look, yes, after what they did, do you want to tell me that the American people are ready to vote a black man as the next president?

And they don't want to admit that that probably reflects their own prejudices, because they still think of the United States as it's still locked up in a time warp in the 1960s.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Nayan Chanda, not just in India, but in the rest of Asia, is there this fascination with the race, and especially with Obama?

NAYAN CHANDA, YaleGlobal Online Magazine: Yes, there is an amazement and excitement. I think the fact that a country which has been associated for so long for slavery, with slavery, and for segregation, and the stories of Rodney King, and stories of Willie Horton, and then recently the tragedy in New Orleans, all that has created a backdrop against which Obama's rise is absolutely amazing.

And so the coverage that you see in the Asian newspapers, television, is quite unprecedented.

Change in policy is expected

Martin Klingst
Die Zeit Weekly Newspaper
They know is that he was against the Iraq war from the beginning. And the Iraq war is highly unpopular in Europe. And that is probably the reason why up to 70 percent, according to the news data, would vote -- of the Europeans, would vote for Obama.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Martin Klingst, how much of the interest, though, is based on what people know about Obama's policies and what he would do differently as president?

MARTIN KLINGST: Well, I think there's not enough knowledge now. You know, it's more the appearance, his story, his biography, the new face.

I think what they know is that he was against the Iraq war from the beginning. And the Iraq war is highly unpopular in Europe. And that is probably the reason why up to 70 percent, according to the news data, would vote -- of the Europeans, would vote for Obama.

And I think it's his opposition to the war, that he is opposed to Guantanamo, that he wants a new moral debate, new ethics, I think that is what interests the Europeans.

I don't think that they know too much, you know, what he's really going to do, but his approach of being -- of using smart power, of being a diplomat, I think that's what the Europeans like. They are a bit tired of just sticks; they would like more carrots.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mvemba Dizolele, we know in Africa it's a somewhat different situation. It is a continent where the Bush administration is held in some favor. So that has some, I assume colors the views of people.

MVEMBA DIZOLELE: Very much so, Judy. You know, the Bush administration policies of the last few years have been overshadowed by Iraq, Abu Ghraib, and all the other debacles that took place.

But in Africa, Bush is viewed very positively. You know, he's initiated programs like PEPFAR, to fight AIDS, PMI to fight malaria, and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which doled out large amounts of money. You know, countries like Tanzania got about $700 million in grant money.

So Africans look at President Bush and the U.S. very favorably, beyond if you take the Iraq issues out.

So in Obama, because they relate to Obama almost on a personal level, you know, Obama has shown some interest in Africa beyond his descent. He's been to Africa. He's co-authored bills to promote a lot of issues alleviating poverty in various parts of Africa, so they expect and anticipate that Obama will continue the positive side of the Bush administration.

McCain as a possible 'hawk'

Hisham Melhem
Al-Arabiya
They are also concerned about the possible ascendancy of John McCain, whom they see as a hawk, who walks and talks like a hawk, whether on Iraq or on Iran, who talks about another war in the Middle East.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, Hisham, one of the things we see in this poll is in Jordan and Egypt, more people who are following the elections say they expect any new leadership in the United States to change U.S. foreign policy for the worse than for the better.

HISHAM MELHEM: Well, they've been burned by what happened the last seven years in particular. I mean, you have a raging war going on in Iraq. Then, you have this war on terror, which is seen differently by many people in the Middle East.

And they've been burned before. They hoped that George Bush would be different or probably even better than Bill Clinton. So that explain in part the continuing skepticism.

But at the same time, they are aware that there is a new attitude, at least on the part of Barack Obama. They are also concerned about the possible ascendancy of John McCain, whom they see as a hawk, who walks and talks like a hawk, whether on Iraq or on Iran, who talks about another war in the Middle East. So they are concerned about John McCain.

At the same time, they have their own questions about Barack Obama. I mean, Barack Obama's speech recently in front of the AIPAC, which is a pro-Israeli group, shocked many Arabs, because they felt, is this the kind of change that we can believe in? What happened to your previous promise, when you said, "I'm going to tell you what you should hear, not necessarily what you like to hear"?

So there is fascination with Barack Obama. There is fascination with the attitude. There's fascination with the character, and more so than policy, although we are explaining the policies.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you're saying some concern about some of the specifics.

Nayan Chanda, you were saying, talking to one of our reporters here at the NewsHour, and saying that, from China, there's a different -- some concern about Obama's views, and also his position on trade policy. He's talked about opening up some of the free trade agreements.

NAYAN CHANDA: Yes. Not only that, he has been talking about reviewing NAFTA and other free trade agreements.

But more importantly for China, he has been calling on the administration, Bush administration, to actually take China to task for what he believes the Chinese are manipulating their currency, to keep the currency low, so that they are racking up a huge export bill.

And so he has been very strong in demanding that the Chinese devalue their currency and bring the U.S.-China trade deficit to some moderate level. And this is, of course, something that the Chinese are worried about, but not only the Chinese.

The region as a whole do not like this confrontation with China, because you have to remember that what the Chinese are exporting to the United States, a lot of it actually is manufactured in the region, in components, and then they're brought into China, and they're assembled, and then exported to the United States.

So any downturn in the U.S. imports from China would affect the region. And that's why I think there is a bit of concern by this aggressive stance that Obama has taken towards China.

Mixed feelings about McCain

Mvemba Dizolele
Freelance Journalist
In Africa, McCain is an unknown quantity. He's not really been engaged in Africa the way he's been engaged in other parts of the world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me ask you each about how John McCain is seen in these countries. Martin Klingst, we've mostly focused here on Obama. He's the new figure in American politics. But what about McCain?

MARTIN KLINGST: Yes, McCain wasn't that much in the focus yet, because everyone was concentrating on the Democratic primary. But McCain is better known or used to be better known because he has been in Europe a few times, and also in Munich and Germany to the security conference.

But I think there are some doubts about him. I think, in general, the public admires his past, you know, being a war hero, having suffered under torture, being a prisoner of war. They know that he is an independent guy with independent opinions.

But at the same time, they have some doubts because of his support of the Iraq war. And because this is so highly unpopular in Europe, many Europeans dislike him because of his support and the support of the surge.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Mvemba Dizolele, what about McCain, views toward McCain in the African continent?

MVEMBA DIZOLELE: Yes, in the African continent, Judy, McCain is viewed as the old America, in the sense that he's very respectable, war hero, just like Martin said (inaudible) but people are trying to depart from that.

So they see him as the guy who causes the continuation of the negative side of the current administration. They want someone who can break with that. And in Africa, McCain is an unknown quantity. He's not really been engaged in Africa the way he's been engaged in other parts of the world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And in the Middle East, Hisham Melhem, he's certainly -- John McCain is certainly known as someone who supports strongly the Bush administration in the war.

HISHAM MELHEM: Absolutely. He's a hawk on Iraq; he's a hawk on Iran; he's a hawk on the Arab-Israeli conflict; he's a strong supporter of Israel. So, in that sense, he's a known quantity. I mean, he's known.

At the same time, those who are concerned in the Arab world about the rise of a more belligerent Iran, those who are concerned about the rise of the Islamist movement, some in Lebanon who are concerned about Syria's continuing role, negative role in Lebanon, would like to see John McCain to keep the fire under the foot of the Iranians and the Islamists in the region.

So they are somewhat conflicted. And as far as Obama, some people are saying, well, there's a perception that he may not be tough enough. And they wonder, will he have the steel and the depth and determination of Abe Lincoln or is he going to be sanctimonious like Jimmy Carter?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Nayan Chanda, a final word about McCain and how he's seen?

NAYAN CHANDA: McCain is, as our previous speakers said, I think McCain is a known character and he's known as being very tough on security policy, so the Chinese ought to be concerned about McCain's tough line on security policy.

But on the other hand, in India, McCain is viewed with favor, because he is known to have supported the Indo-U.S. civil nuclear agreement. And in India, there is actually concern, because, although Obama signed on to the legislation supporting the civil agreement, Obama has shown some ambivalence and concern about the impact of the civilian nuclear agreement on nonproliferation.

And so while Indians overall favor Obama, there is concern about Obama coming to power and perhaps not following through the civil agreement that India and the U.S. has signed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Nayan Chanda, we thank you. Martin Klingst, Hisham Melhem, and, of course, Mvemba Dizolele, thank you all. We appreciate it.