U.S. Again Hailed as ‘Country of Dreams’
Around the World, Obama’s Victory Is Seen as a Renewal of American Ideals and Aspirations
By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 6, 2008; A26
LONDON, Nov. 5 — Through tears and whoops of joy, in celebrations that spilled onto the streets, people around the globe called Barack Obama‘s election Tuesday a victory for the world and a renewal of America’s ability to inspire.
From Paris to New Delhi to the beaches of Brazil, revelers said that his victory made them feel more connected to America and that America seemed suddenly more connected to the rest of the world.
“As a black British woman, I can’t believe that America has voted in a black president,” said Jackie Humphries, 49, a librarian who was among 1,500 people partying at the U.S. Embassy in London on Tuesday night.
“It makes me feel like there is a future that includes all of us,” she said, wrapping her arm around a life-size cardboard likeness of the new U.S. president-elect.
“Americans overcame the racial divide and elected Obama because they wanted the real thing: a candidate who spoke from the bottom of his heart,” said Terumi Hino, a photographer and painter in Tokyo. “I think this means the United States can go back to being admired as the country of dreams.”
Kenya, where Obama’s father was raised as a goatherd, declared Thursday a national holiday, and in Obama’s ancestral village of Kogelo, people danced in the streets wrapped in the American flag.
In South Africa, Nelson Mandela, the civil rights icon who helped bring down his country’s apartheid regime, released a letter to Obama in which he said, “Your victory has demonstrated that no person anywhere in the world should not dare to dream of wanting to change the world for a better place.”
Desmond Tutu, another iconic anti-apartheid leader and the retired Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, said Obama’s victory tells “people of color that for them, the sky is the limit.”
“We have a new spring in our walk and our shoulders are straighter,” Tutu said, echoing a sentiment heard across Africa.
The world sees Obama as more than a racial standard-bearer, of course. Many people praised his policies on matters ranging from Iraq to health care, which they appeared to know in remarkable detail.
Others expressed concerns. In China, some people worried about Obama’s positions on the delicate issues of Tibet and Taiwan. Some Indians and Egyptians said they had questions about his views on Pakistan and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Many people, in dozens of interviews around the world Tuesday night and Wednesday, also said they understood that no new president could immediately change the United States or the world. But many said Obama’s election was a powerful signal that the United States intended to change direction.
“For the first time I feel the phrase ‘I hereby declare that all men are created equal,’ from the U.S. Declaration of Independence, really came to life for me today,” said architect Mamdouh al-Sobaihi, a guest at a post-election reception Wednesday in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia. “U.S. history has returned to its roots. The forefathers would be very pleased with today’s election,” he said.
“Today the United States said not ‘We want change’ but ‘We have changed,’ ” he added.
Saudi journalist Samir Saadi said Obama’s election means “the U.S. has won the war on terror.”
“Given Obama’s name, his background, the doubts about his religion, Americans still voted for him, and this proved that America is a democracy,” he said. “People here are starting to believe in the U.S. again.”
For many, the youthful Democratic senator’s election came with an almost visceral sense of relief at the impending end of the Bush administration. A recent BBC poll found that people in all 22 nations surveyed preferred Obama by a wide margin to Republican John McCain, who was widely identified with President Bush.
In Russia, Ilya Utekhin, an anthropologist at the European University in St. Petersburg, said Obama’s election has given the United States “a historic chance for large-scale re-branding of the image of the United States.”
“An African American president appears to have more sensitivity to the cross-cultural diversity of the world, and this is a promise of a more creative and flexible foreign policy,” he said.
Viktor Erofeyev, a prominent Russian novelist, said he believed the election signaled a new era.
“The choice of an African American president in the United States overturns the whole idea of the stiff and conservative America,” Erofeyev said. “This means that America did wake up. This means that America is again open for free and democratic values. America has once again become a good model to emulate. It has again become a great country.”
“It is almost impossible to overstate the impact of this vote on the rest of the world,” said Joichi Ito, a globe-trotting Internet entrepreneur and blogger who is based in Tokyo.
“The United States looked closed, stupid, xenophobic and aggressive” under Bush, Ito said. “By electing Obama, it looks open, diversity-embracing, humble and intelligent.”
But the overwhelming reaction among those interviewed had nothing to do with Obama’s policies. It was delight that America had produced, on a grand, global scale, inspiring and overdue proof that the American dream was still alive.
In Brazil, many people likened Obama to Brazil’s popular president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a former shoe shiner and union leader.
“Obama is something new, something different,” said Elizabeth Soares, a lawyer from Rio de Janeiro. “The way Obama expresses himself, his charisma, the way he speaks, reminds people of a Brazilian and makes them like him more.”
The United States “is a country which has habitually, sometimes irritatingly, regarded itself as young and vibrant, the envy of the world,” veteran BBC foreign correspondent John Simpson wrote on the network’s Web site. “Often this is merely hype. But there are times when it is entirely true. With Barack Obama’s victory, one of these moments has arrived.”
David Lammy, a black member of Britain’s Parliament who has known Obama for several years, said that “America is a country that has been marked by race.”
“Now black and white can raise their shoulders high and can turn a page on issues of inequality,” he said, marveling at the “amazing image” of a black family living in the White House.
Newspaper headlines in Britain portrayed Obama’s election in soaring language. “One Giant Leap for Mankind,” said the Sun newspaper in London, which dumped its usual topless Page 3 girl in favor of a photo of Obama voting. The Times of London, which devoted its entire front page to a photo of a smiling Obama in front of an American flag, proclaimed: “The New World.”
In Germany, Benjamin Becker, 25, who studies English and history in Cologne, flew to Berlin for a party celebrating Obama’s victory, an achievement he said would brighten global perceptions of the United States.
Becker, who spent a year in Atlanta on a Fulbright scholarship, said he had been “saddened” by America’s diminished standing in the world in recent years. “I remember 10 years ago, when the United States was my absolute dreamland,” he said. “Now I still am partial to the U.S., but the Bush years were detrimental for the country. I hope it will be much different now.”
In Ukraine, where Obama will have to respond to the growing assertiveness of Russia, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko called Obama’s victory “an inspiration for us. That which appeared impossible has become possible.”
In India, political representatives of the country’s lowest caste, known as Dalits or “untouchables,” said they viewed Obama’s victory as an example in their own struggle for equal rights.
“This is America’s second revolution, and Obama’s victory will boost the esteem of the underprivileged social classes and ethnic groups the world over,” said Chandra Bhan Prasad, a prominent Dalit author. “India’s rigid caste society will come under terrific moral pressure to integrate Dalits even more.”
In Iran, strained relations with the United States colored many people’s perceptions of Obama’s win.
“If America can do away with its prejudice, maybe they will also stop thinking that all Iranians are terrorists,” said Elam Moghaddam, a homemaker shopping for shrimp in Tehran. “I hope that Iran and the United States will make diplomatic relations, now that Obama became president.”
Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a former Iranian vice president and opponent of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said he feared that Obama would be under “lots of pressure” to take a hard line against the Islamic world because of his Muslim roots.
“I hope he won’t feel compelled to put more pressure on the Islamic world to compensate the fact that his middle name is Hussein,” he said. “I congratulate the American people with this choice.”
Praise for the election of an African American also came from an unusual source: Abbas Abdi, one of the organizers of the 1979 hostage-taking of American diplomats at the U.S. Embassy.
“It is hard to imagine that blacks 50 years ago in some states had to sit in the back seats in public transportation,” Abdi said. “Now one of them, a member from a minority, is president.”
Many people in China appeared baffled by the idea of a black president, displaying little knowledge of American blacks beyond the official state media’s emphasis on stories about U.S. discrimination.
“Most Chinese don’t have any contact with black people in their daily life,” said Yuan Yue, founder of Horizon Research, which found in a recent poll that among Chinese respondents with a preference, Obama led McCain by almost 18 percentage points.
“Many Chinese have good feelings about the U.S. democratic system,” he said. “And this result gives Chinese a more direct understanding about American democracy. It sends the message that everyone has a chance. If you raise the right issues, even if you are black, you can win. This is the most attractive part of American democracy.”
Still, for some in China, the Obama glass remained only half-full. “Obama is half-white, half-black, so the progress in the U.S. is not that big,” said Hu Jing, 25, a paralegal. “It will take dozens of years to elect a person who is 100 percent black.”
Correspondents Edward Cody in Paris, Thomas Erdbrink in Tehran, Maureen Fan in Beijing, Blaine Harden in Tokyo, Mary Jordan in London, Philip P. Pan in Moscow, Joshua Partlow in Rio de Janeiro, Faiza Saleh Ambah in Jiddah, Mary Beth Sheridan in Baghdad and Emily Wax in New Delhi; special correspondents Karla Adam in London, Sherine el-Bayoumi in Cairo, Shannon Smiley in Berlin and Akiko Yamamoto in Tokyo; and researcher Zhang Jie in Beijing contributed to this report.