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The Change the Old World Doesn't Believe In -- Yet

By Dan Hamilton and Sushmitha Narsiah

If Europeans could have voted in the U.S. presidential election, they would have voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama. More than two-thirds of Germans, Italians and Spanish queried recently by a Harris Interactive poll supported Obama; less than one in ten favored John McCain. Only one percent of those polled in France supported McCain.

The main reason Europeans give for supporting Obama is his perceived ability to represent change from the Bush administration. Other strengths are his personality and youth. None of this is particularly surprising, and confirms most anecdotal evidence.

What is particularly striking about the poll is not what Europeans think about America but how they think about themselves.

Electing a "candidate of color" is the change Europeans believe in when it comes to America, according to the poll. But that's not the change Europeans believe in for their own political systems. 71 percent of those polled in Germany, for instance, expect the election of a leader of color to have a positive effect on the United States, with just 3 percent negative. But only 35 percent in Germany believe a leader of color would be positive for their country; 16 percent believe the effect would be negative. This difference in view is mirrored across Europe.

Is the change Europeans seek for America not the change they believe in for themselves?
The poll itself doesn't necessarily give us the answer. By asking to weigh the pros and cons of a "candidate of color" the pollsters are asking people to judge a candidate on the basis of color alone. Yet Obama has been successful in large part because he has not defined himself as a "candidate of color." Obama transformed the idea of "change" into an extraordinary lyric by transcending the issue of race, and thereby won the support of most voters irrespective of skin color, socio-economic status, or traditional party loyalties. Obama has been careful to define himself not only as "post-partisan," but also as "post-racial," even trans-ethnic.

This approach cuts against the grain of a good deal of politics in both America and Europe. Yet some of the most successful minority politicians in Europe have done the same thing. "I do not regard myself as a black member of Parliament," declared Paul Boateng, after he became Britain's first black cabinet minister in 2002.

Cem Özdemir, Germany's most prominent politician of Turkish descent, has the same message. "Obama is an American and he is as black as he is white. I am a German with a Turkish background and at the same time I am as Swabian as I am European," he told the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel. "We have to give up seeing every political figure from an ethnic minority as an ambassador of the country of his forefathers." Özdemir, who has served in both the German and European Parliaments, is about to become the co-chairman of the German Greens.

Minority politicians have advanced elsewhere in Europe as well. French President Nicholas Sarkozy appointed three ethnic-minority ministers to his cabinet. As the U.S. election results became known Wednesday morning in Europe, Rama Yade, Sarkozy's junior minister for human rights and the only black government minister, exclaimed to French radio that Obama's victory was "the fall of the Berlin Wall times ten...America is a New World again. On this morning, we all want to be American so we can take a bite of this dream unfolding before our eyes."

Decades of immigration are changing the face of western Europe. Blacks, Asians and Muslims account for at least 10 percent of the population in countries such as France, Britain and the Netherlands, and even 7 percent in Sweden. Islam is Europe's second-largest and fastest growing religion.

These changes are transforming the politics of some localities. Nearly half of the residents of the Dutch city of Rotterdam, for instance, are not native to the Netherlands or have at least one parent born outside the country. A quarter of the city's residents are Muslim. Ahmed Aboutaleb, a Moroccan-born, Muslim Dutch politician, will become mayor of Rotterdam on January 1.

On the whole, however, European leaders of minority descent are underrepresented in democratic bodies across the continent, and it has been difficult for minority politicians to rise to the top of national politics.

In the British House of Commons, for instance, only 15 of the 646 Members are of an ethnic background. None of the 555 deputies in the French Assembly representing districts in continental France is black or Muslim, although minorities do hold some of the 22 seats representing France's overseas territories. Only 2 of the 612 members of the German Bundestag are of Turkish descent and only 10 of minority background, despite the country's sizable German-Turkish community and the fact that almost 20 percent of the population has some minority background.

Europe is clearly not America, of course, and it is facile to transpose the experience of one continent to another. Moreover, almost all of the African-American representatives in the U.S. Congress hail from majority-black districts, whereas there are still relatively few majority non-white districts in Europe. On the other hand, in many European countries members of parliament are elected from party lists rather than directly by their constituents. In such cases, a party intent on ensuring greater minority representation could simply opt to place attractive minority politicians on its list.

In short, grass-roots politics in Europe may be changing, but the Old World has yet to discover its own Barack Obama.

Sushmitha Narsiah is a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C.

Dan Hamilton is the director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations.

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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Johns Hopkins University.

Comments (28)

CatherineFromAustralia Author Profile Page:

BobMoses is too insulated by the soundbite mentality to hear what I said, but I sincerely hope there are some who aren't.

Hating Bush is ludicrous. He seems to be a decent guy who thinks at the soundbite level. Presumably he was selected as their front man by the Republican Party machine because they knew him through his Dad and because he projected that decency to the voting public. Now he's a convenient scapegoat.

I'd like you guys to realise that the majority of Europeans care about the America that you are taught at school your country still is, and want to see its return. Don't get sidetracked by silly nonsense about who's superior and get back to the business of reclaiming your roots.

Peace and long term prosperity are not compatible with destablising governments in desperately poor countries because they use a different economic model from yours, or protecting oil supplies at the risk (now tragically realised) of millions of maimed and shattered lives.

bobmoses Author Profile Page:

CATHERINEFROMAUSTRALIA -

Thanks for reminding us that there will always be those who are so obsessive in the hate for Bush and distaste for the US that they can not engage in any discussion without telling us about it.

Sorry that you find the idea of criticism of any country other than the US distasteful, but believe it or not, some people have other things to talk about other than their mindless partisan hatred.

jacquie1 Author Profile Page:

I had the unique opportunity to be in Perpignan, France taking an immersion french course during the election. I had my "I voted" sticker on my wallet since I had voted early in Virginia. That sticker was my passport to people opening up to me. I would open my wallet to pay for something and the person behind the counter or in line would ask "Vous etes Americaine?" As soon as I said "Oui" they would yell, "Obama, Oui!" My family living in France are all French citizens and it was with great pride that they felt like they had voted for Obama through me. I had never experienced this kind of pride in my country and was so shocked that they even cared. The school I attended even had a party for me (like I had anything to do with the election other than voting) complete with expensive champagne and fancy nibbles. I think the world wants to look up to America again, they want us to lead. It was like a cleansing breathe of clean air when I heard the news that Obama had one. Call it hope, but I just feel like we can get the problems worked on and solved.

CatherineFromAustralia Author Profile Page:

I find the emphasis of this article very disappointing. There is a completely subjective remark "What is particularly striking about the poll is not what Europeans think about America but how they think about themselves."

What really is striking is the strength of opinion all over the world, not just Europe, about wanting to see an end to 'Bush' policies. The breathtaking combination of arrogance, ignorance, and xenophobia epitomized by the invasion of Iraq is ugly and frightening. Some of the smartest, hardest working, good hearted, and well educated people I know are American (I have lived in both the U.S. and Europe). However the jingoistic nationalism with which you infect your children from a young age, combined with the lack of education about the disastrous effects of American interference in other countries, is very scary.

Your government has a history of interfering in the governments of other countries for short term American gain, at the expense of misery and death for countless of people, particularly in Central America and the Middle East. Yet the American people are largely good-hearted and seem to live in this bubble where they think of America as a world benefactor. This disconnect from reality has the potential to bring your country down, and take a lot of other people with it.

Barack Obama was criticized by McCain for mentioning the killing of some Afghani civilians by American soldiers. But you need to know what is happening, not to feel humiliated or ashamed or inferior, just to be able to make informed and realistic decisions. This is no more anti-American than warning Louis XVI of France about the potential for the French Revolution would have been anti-monarchist. While Europeans might be portrayed to you as smugly and unjustifiably superior, the truth is that many of them are just scared of how much damage your government is going to do and want it to stop

writingfrontier Author Profile Page:

This brings to mind the coming "Europeanization of America." While distinct differences in our cultures remain, more and more each day America takes on a more European attitude. To understand why, see

http://saturdaymorningpost.com/2008/07/27/the-europeanization-of-america/

LJWestmaas Author Profile Page:

Quoting Asoders22:

"Still, Sabuni - who was born in Africa, as far as I know - would most likely not meet much racial bias of the strong kind that Obama has had to deal with, would she want to pursue a career as prime minister (if she is qualified - that I haven't looked into). It is there, but has not the strong hold of the population the way racism has in the U.S. We have no memories of segregated buses or schools by law, no National Guard stopping black students from entering "white" schools, no burning inner cities in the sixties."

---

It's very disheartening that instead of trying to appreciate the significance and the beauty of this moment, that you use it to try to tear Americans down. Something amazing happened here in America last week. Don't just brush it off by saying "We could do it too, and you guys aren't that great anyway."

JanMartin1 Author Profile Page:

@ekim53
Funny, the outcome of our liberal and social politics is very different of what you are projecting. Yes we do have higher taxes but low unemployment, high productivity and a stable economy. And we let our government involve on subjects that really matter. Like education and healthcare, which are available for all budgets and the quality is the same for everybody. So with fewer differences between people in a society, you take away the root of anger, violence and poverty. (Sorry for going off-topic but I just had to reply on this comment.)

JanMartin1 Author Profile Page:

@JohnSmith7, of course we understand the significance of this election for the US.

In Holland we did not have slavery and ethnic problems like the US. So it makes no sense comparing.

Though we have our own black pages in history, since Apartheid was Dutch phenomenon in the colony South Africa. And we were responsible for transporting all the people from Africa to the US. This was almost a sole Dutch operation carried out by the VOC.

We just installed a new mayor in the second largest city, with a muslim background. If he has the ambition to go for prime-minister the way is clear to be elected by a democratic process.

Some years ago we were making ourselves ready for our first gay prime minister. He was on top of the polls but was murdered six days before the election... An event we are still traumatised by.

ekim53 Author Profile Page:

Yes Obama should stay in Europe, they love that liberal crapola over there. High taxes, high unemployment, low productivity and greater bondage of it's citizen to big bloated government.

giab Author Profile Page:

tmaffolter:

people of turkish heritage in germany has plenty of opportunities and I m quite sure their health care and social system is way better then yours

I understand you are being all so cocky because of the great time you are having in this election
bu I would suggest you to read a bit more about the rest of the planet before getting so bullish

wandererfromoz Author Profile Page:

Adendum - when we elect a black Prime Minister.

By the way many thought Noel Petersen - a black/aboriginal activist should have been appointed as the next Governor General - but that post is now held by a very capable woman as is the State Governor generalship. Both deeply respected and admired.

What is really encouraging is that man can change, man can seek what is good, and that man 'can'. All men can.

Kingofkings1 Author Profile Page:

A better title for this article would have been: 'Is obama the Christian world's superman?"
How many times does the guy have to say he's christian?
The only thing left for him to do is to wear a big cross on his forehead.

wandererfromoz Author Profile Page:

Here in Oz land I look forward with great joy to the day when we elect a 'black'-we refer to them as 'aboriginals' or 'kooris' as they do. Colour has nothing to do with intelligence, wisdom, beauty and grace. Pastor Doug Nichols was givne the post of Governor of a State and being aboriginal this was not a token appointment as he was greatly loved and admired by all - and now revered.

asoders22 Author Profile Page:

Nyamko Sabuni was born 1969 in Burundi. Her father was a refugee from Kongo Kinshasa. She was twelve when she came to Sweden and grew up outside Stockholm. She handles integration, equality, consumer issues, NGO:s and youth issues in the Swedish government.

She is against religious schools taking the place of ordinary ones, against the muslim veil on girls at school, and at one point wanted mandatory gyn examinations of all girls in order to find cases of illegal sexual mutilation (a great problem in Sweden, with so many immigrants from countries where those terrible mutilations are commonplace). So far, she has succeeded in none of those issues.

The color of her skin would not prohibit her from becoming Prime Minister, if her party or a coalition asked that of her.

Chris561_561 Author Profile Page:

Lets pull apart the question of race in the Obama election and not be afraid to discuss it openly.

Even after Obama is elected and while I did not vote for him based on experience and being forced to select what I thought was the best of two bad choices, I still don't know anything about what Obama has actually done for America except follow party expectations.

Please, lets start listing what he has done besices give a good speech and motivate a vote taking advantage of uncertian economic times since 9/11. Lets ignore that he gained support bashing Regan/Bush economic ideas, which he then turns around and promotes the same thing, just toward like economic stimulis packages. I for one remember when G. Bush Senior got the Federal Reserve to lover the interest rate after the Regan years for the first time and giving our economy a huge shot of enegry in the arm.

What has Obama done as a Congressman and a Senetor? I am still waiting to hear about how anything he did helped anyone as a whole of all races.

Lets start listing concrete things he has actually done. He has no economic model we can review. He has no defined and independent style of leadership he can speak of. He picks historical figures like JFK and FDR to explain some sort of style he may have and both these figures hand emense failures bringing death to one of them. The other was elected three times as the truth of his health and various sexual affairs were hidden from the American people with the help of the press and his economic policies were later considered racist.

So, I still ask who is Obama and what has he done and I don't want to hear about how magical he is or how he is new American Royality or how he is turning a page in history. None of that crap is going to put food on my table or gas in my tank.

Please start listing. I want to know and I want to ask the questions the liberal press won't ask and I want answers.

If no one wants to do this, because they are afraid of being called racist, then the conditions of making a fair and equal playing field have been met and its time to repeal Affirmative Action in the United States. I do believe McCain was forced to run a campagin with both arms and both legs tied behind his back with a gag in his mouth, but with both eyes wide open as well as his ears. It must have been toture for him.

beerfilmclub Author Profile Page:

yes, it is quite hypocritical that europeans are celebrating the election of barack obama and hailing the u.s. as being a colored blind nation while countries like france, germany, and uk do not try to include ethnic minorities in their political process.

there were a series off riots 3 years ago in the suburbs of paris (parisian suburbs are generally ghettos). this is perhaps one reason why nicholas sarkozy decided to go out of his way to appoint a few non-whites in his cabinet.

in sarkozy's autobiography he writes about his admiration that the u.s. has been able to include those who are non-white in the political process and that george w. bush had blacks in prominent roles in his administration.

i would like to mention. that if it weren't for george w. bush having given colin powell and condi rice high-profile roles in his cabinet, barack obama would not be president.

over the past 8 years, the american people became accustomed to and comfortable with powell and rice and were able to look beyond their race and to only see their amazing abilities.

despite the fact that colin powell was essentially a partner in crime for the debacle that is the iraq war.

tmaffolter Author Profile Page:

gerhardfeix :
"...but only 35 percent in Germany believe a leader of color would be positive for their country";
This sentence makes almost no sense due to the enormous small population of the so called colored people here in this country. It would like to remind me of a visit long ago to US, in a time of ethnic troubles over there.Somebody ask me at that time " what problems do we have in Germany with our colored people? He could not understood the answer "none", because in US the peoples are thinking mostly ,we got a population similar like US.
________________________________________________

I am sure there are a lot of Turkish people who would be fascinated to learn that Germany has no racial concerns.

tmaffolter Author Profile Page:

Interesting. Lots of defensiveness and denial here from the European crowd.

JohnSmith7 Author Profile Page:

I think one thing that has gone unsaid throughout this entire "historic" election process is that an African-American becoming president of the United States signals the end of America's status as a European-founded nation with European values and ideas held first and foremost. Yes, it could for a long time already call itself "uniquely American", but in truth its highest held ideals and aspirations, such as democracy, a republican form of government, and the Christian concept of being "a light on a hill" for all to see and emulate all came from its European origins and hitherfore European-American leadership. What happens now that the torch has been passed to someone who does not identify with these roots and who represents a new America that really is "uniquely American"? I don't think any of us can know now. The new version of "America" could end up being fabulously wonderful or horrendously terrible. And its eventual path falls to Obama to establish. However, one thing we can know for sure is that America is no longer European. Like the day Columbus landed on these shores and ushered in a new era, the election of Obama has similarly ushered in a new era.

I wonder if the Europeans realize what this election really meant. I wonder if the majority of Americans do? They will.

timplatt Author Profile Page:

Nyamko Sambuni the Swedish Minister for Integration and Eauality, was born in Africa but has lived in Sweden since childhood. She speaks Swedish without any trace of an accent. If you listen to her on the radio, not knowing who she is, you picture a blonde and articulate Swedish woman. She has very black skin. Her ideas, although sometimes provocative, are right in the mainstream of Swedish, Liberal, progressive, non-socialist, feminist politics. Yesterday, at a professional conference a blond, Swedish lecturer referred to Sabuni's open ambition to become Prime Minister of Sweden as being something that "a Swede" would never say. But she is a Swede, if anything. All sorts of people, men and women, in Sweden are conceivable (maybe not desirable) as Prime Minister. I think Nyamko Sabuni is unfortunately still completely inconceivable as a Swedish Prime Minister, due to her skin color and her name. For progressive people, confronting one's own unconscious prejudices is difficult and disconcerting, but liberating

Chris561_561 Author Profile Page:

Thank you Washington Post Global for pointing out the obvious below.

"What is particularly striking about the poll is not what Europeans think about America but how they think about themselves.


Electing a "candidate of color" is the change Europeans believe in when it comes to America, according to the poll. But that's not the change Europeans believe in for their own political systems. 71 percent of those polled in Germany, for instance, expect the election of a leader of color to have a positive effect on the United States, with just 3 percent negative. But only 35 percent in Germany believe a leader of color would be positive for their country; 16 percent believe the effect would be negative. This difference in view is mirrored across Europe."

This article affirms that Obama was elected for no better reason than he is black and a candidate who presents the superficial qualities as he does, can sweep any election he runs in as he demonstrated coming up from nowhere in Chicago.

I don't know who exactly was answered the pollsters abroad, but why should we care all that much about what they think?

Just goes to show you that what is good for the gander isn't good for the goose, as these Caucasian countries say its alright for America, but not alright for them. If anyone knows any better, Hitler had some Jewish blood in his blood line and that is why the Aryan race allowed Jewish blood that dated somewhere before the 1770s in Germany.

thedefendantX Author Profile Page:

You forget to mention the Americas, particularly North America where you would expect a closer affinity with USA political opinions. But a person of color could not be elected to head the governments of the majority white Canadian provinces; a black candidate for prime minister of Canada in the 2 major parties would have an impossible task overcoming the blatant racism in the Conservative Party or the more subtle racism within the Liberal Party. It goes without saying that no black candidate would be selected to lead the governments in the Bloc Quebecois, or in the provincial governments of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. Resistance to a candidate of African heritage to lead a provincial government would be least in Newfoundland, Labrador, the NorthWest territory, and British Columbia, but elsewhere white Canada, like white Australia, has a long way to go to overcome historically widespread racism against blacks. The appointment of a black Haitian governor-general to represent the British Monarch in Canada generated wide-spread white Canadian expressions of racist resentment against her. Needless to say, a black leader of Mexico, Costa Rico, or many South American countries would be out of the question for racist reasons stoked, revealingly enough, by the local Roman Catholic hiearchy, on historic-cultural and religious defenses of racism based in African slavery. Obama should tread the foreign waters in the Americas and Australia with care.

asoders22 Author Profile Page:

Hi there, Kullman. Sweden never had slavery in the main country (well, maybe the vikings did, but that was 1000 years ago). By slavery you must mean the very brief period that Sweden had colonies abroad.I haven't checked it, but I would be very surprised if you could show me some Swedish slaves in the late 19th century. But the point is - we don't have a population in Sweden that is identified as descendants from slaves. Which means no slave-owners' great grandkids, either.

Of course the king has no power. By pointing out that Sweden is a monarchy I just meant we have no president.

Yes, it is indeed true we have a very large number of immigrants from the Middle East - many of the Iraqis fleeing the country because of the war, for instance, have come to Sweden. We also have immigrants from Turkey, Somalia and many other countries. We are only nine million Swedes, but I believe we have more Middle East immigrants than the U.S.

Since so many came at the same time, they tended to end up in the same residential areas, an that has created a sharp division between them and the rest of the country.

Still, Sabuni - who was born in Africa, as far as I know - would most likely not meet much racial bias of the strong kind that Obama has had to deal with, would she want to pursue a career as prime minister (if she is qualified - that I haven't looked into). It is there, but has not the strong hold of the population the way racism has in the U.S. We have no memories of segregated buses or schools by law, no National Guard stopping black students from entering "white" schools, no burning inner cities in the sixties.

GooeyBlob Author Profile Page:

This doesn't take into account the fact that Germany has a female leader. The UK elected one too, as long ago as 1979 - maybe we will live to see a female US president in our lifetimes.

I don't think it really matters to most people in the UK who is their next leader. The opposition could be led by a person of any race, religion or gender and still win - Brown is, I am afraid to say, a lame duck Prime Minister.

giab Author Profile Page:

1) You point out the European see Obama as a leader able to change the Bush policy
2) You state that Obama's only change is the color of his skin ?

What are you tryin to prove ?

Plus, in Europe we have a smaller black population and is in no way connected with a past o slavery

You are comparing Pears with Apples here

CNVKullman Author Profile Page:

The black population in Sweden may be small, but the arab/turkish population is by no means small and are definitely but into a group "Invandrare" (translated to "Immigrants") with a widely negative connotation. I would believe that Sabuni would have a hard time becoming prime minister, especially if you look at the position she was given in the government (a black woman as minister for integration and gender equality? that doesn't seem obvious at all!). And the monarchy is a joke, he is just a figurehead with no real power.

Oh and Sweden had slavery, even outlawed it AFTER the US did. Just so you know.

I love this country, but it is not perfect and the racism that abounds in this country due to the recent influx of new races to the North is one of the few things that angers me about it.

Regards from Norrköping, Sweden.

gerhardfeix Author Profile Page:

"...but only 35 percent in Germany believe a leader of color would be positive for their country";
This sentence makes almost no sense due to the enormous small population of the so called colored people here in this country. It would like to remind me of a visit long ago to US, in a time of ethnic troubles over there.Somebody ask me at that time " what problems do we have in Germany with our colored people? He could not understood the answer "none", because in US the peoples are thinking mostly ,we got a population similar like US.

asoders22 Author Profile Page:

Sweden - the land of Greta Garbo, Ingrid Bergman, Björn Borg, ABBA, and the author of Pippi Longstocking (Astrid Lindgren) - has a black member of government, Nyamko Sabuni. http://www.sweden.gov.se/sb/d/7575
She is minister for integration and gender equality.

The black population of Sweden - located at the very North of Europe - is very small, quite recent and doesn't form a community, since Sweden never had slavery. Black citizens are usually (but not always, there is certainly racism in Sweden) seen as individuals, not members of a social group. If she had the ambition, there would probably be nothing to stop Sabuni from being prime minister.

Not president, though - since Sweden doesn't have one. It's a monarchy.

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