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If history records a sudden surge in carbon emissions on Wednesday, it may be due to the collective exhalation of relief and joy by the hundreds of millions — perhaps billions — of people around the globe who watched, waited and prayed for Barack Obama to be elected president of the United States.
In country after country, elation over Obama’s victory was palpable, the hunger for a change of American leadership as strong outside the U.S. as in it. And there was wonderment that, in the world’s most powerful democracy, a man with African roots and the middle name Hussein, an upstart fighter who took on political heavyweights, could capture the highest office in the land.
Suddenly, Americans used to being criticized for speaking hyperbolically about their country found plenty of others doing it for them.
“The New World,” the Times of London declared on its front page, beneath a huge smiling portrait of Obama.
“One Giant Leap for Mankind,” echoed the Sun.
From the beginning, this campaign has mesmerized observers far beyond U.S. shores. Two wars and two terms under President Bush have left many abroad angry and spent. Yet though many have denounced U.S. power and unilateralism, they also seemed intent on putting the country back on a pedestal, and they fixed on Obama as their hope. Polls consistently showed that, if the rest of the world could vote, the Illinois Democrat would win not by a landslide, but an avalanche.
So as results came tumbling in on their radios, TV screens and cellphones, many outside the United States saw it as their moment as much as America’s, and Obama’s victory as their own.
“A lot of people told me they had tears in their eyes last night. I was one of them,” Randa Habib, a Jordanian writer and political analyst, said Wednesday. “I saw his speech. I was very moved. This is a lesson to us all, that blacks and whites in America can have such a shameful past between them, yet they come together and learn how to live together.”
The Middle East, she said, has always wanted to look to the U.S. as a beacon, despite differences over the Arab- Israeli conflict, the Iraq war and other issues. “There’s a feeling of hope that things will be right in America,” Habib said. “Obama can make you once again respect the U.S. for its values and democracy and all those things we had forgotten about over the last eight years.”
No one yet knows what Obama’s foreign policy will look like, and the celebratory mood over his triumph in many places was tempered by questions about his plans for U.S. troops in Iraq, his role in Middle East peace talks and his commitment to free trade, among other issues.
But such doubts aside, legions of jubilant supporters set off firecrackers in El Salvador, danced in Liberia and drank shots in Japan. Good wishes went streaming Obama-ward from homemakers in Indonesia, the world’s most-populous Muslim nation, where Obama spent some of his early childhood, and from Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who also beat long odds to lead his country.
“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,” said one letter addressed simply to “Senator Barack Obama, Chicago.”
Its author: Nelson Mandela, the first black president of South Africa, writing to the first black president-to-be of the United States. Africa has embraced Obama as something of a native son, though it was his father who was born in Kenya, not Obama himself.
Those inspired by Obama’s origins and accomplishments include French political activist Patrick Lozes, the son of an immigrant from the African nation of Benin. “This election is going to improve the image the U.S.A. has in our neighborhoods,” Lozes said of France’s heavily Muslim working-class enclaves. “The American dream comes back to life.”
Tens of thousands of Europeans turned out to catch a glimpse of Obama during his tour of the continent over the summer. Many are counting on him to restore a more harmonious relationship between the U.S. and Europe, after recent years of tension over the war in Iraq and matters such as climate change.
A similar hope lives in Mexico, where former Foreign Secretary Jorge Castañeda wrote in Wednesday’s Reforma newspaper: “Obama won, the map of the United States was transformed and for Mexico an extraordinary opportunity has opened . . . because it will be infinitely simpler to be a neighbor, partner and friend of the United States with Obama.”
Supporters of the Republican presidential runner-up, John McCain, were not impossible to find Wednesday. Just very much harder. In Italy, a right-wing senator, Maurizio Gasparri, provoked a nasty domestic spat when he suggested that Obama would be soft on terrorism and that “with Obama in the White House, perhaps Al Qaeda is happier.” The Italian left immediately called on Gasparri to apologize to Americans for his comments.
Russia’s leaders — who in the wake of Obama’s election lashed out at U.S. backing of Georgia in its armed conflict with Russia in August — probably also preferred McCain, said Alexander Konovalov of the Institute for Strategic Assessment in Moscow.
“Traditionally Republicans were better than Democrats for Russia, or for the Soviet Union in the past,” Konovalov said. “We always backed the Democrats, but agreements we could strike only with the Republicans.”
But in China, where real democracy is unknown, an unofficial poll conducted by the official New China News Agency found that 83% of respondents favored Obama over McCain. In other countries ruled by unelected or autocratic regimes, people marveled at the resilience of American democracy, its capacity for change and its stamina through an endless election season.
“Let me tell you that now I believe in American democracy,” said Mostafa Eqbali, a merchant in the Iranian capital, Tehran. “Honestly, I did not think that Obama would be president. I thought that the invisible hands of the big trusts and cartels would not allow a black man to be president of the United States.”
Iran’s nuclear ambitions will be one of the first foreign policy challenges to face Obama after his inauguration, as well as what to do in neighboring Iraq. Some among Iraq’s ruling Shiite Muslim elite worry that Obama will push for a speedier withdrawal of U.S. troops than they would like, or challenge their decisions in ways the Bush administration did not.
The continued fighting in Afghanistan, the worldwide financial meltdown and global warming will press for Obama’s attention as well. “These, though, are issues for another day. Today is for celebration, for happiness and for reflected human glory,” said Britain’s Guardian newspaper. “Savor those words: President Barack Obama, America’s hope and, in no small way, ours too.”
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