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Les Echos, France

A Battle without Magic

By Dominique Moisi

Translated By Michelle Boone

29 October 2012

Edited by Jane Lee

France - Les Echos - Original Article (French)

In 2008, the world’s eyes were on America with a mixture of hope-fueled passion in some and apprehension in others. “A black president” leading the United States — would Americans dare to topple the wall of race like the East Germans who brought down the wall of oppression 19 years before them? Or were they going to retreat before breaching this symbolic barrier, terrorized by their own daring?

In 2012, the world still looks at America with interest, but curiosity about the outcome of the election has replaced the “humanist” passion of yesterday. To use a sports analogy, we continue to watch the game until the end not because it is pretty, but because we want to know the result.

Before, the world seemed to almost symbolically suspend its course while waiting for the results of the presidential election. By electing their president, Americans chose the president of the world — Obama, a man who combined the dynamic youth of a Kennedy and the ability to rebuild of a Roosevelt.

Today, however, many commentators are wondering openly if the date Nov. 8, the opening of the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, isn’t actually more important to the world than Nov. 6, the U.S. presidential election; the democratic ritual is on one side of the scales, while strategic reality is on the other.

Such a question would have been sacrilegious only a few years ago, but it isn’t any longer. In fact, even if America still has “what it takes” and even if it remains by far the world’s premier military power, America is not quite America. All American debt combined, an American baby born today will find in his crib a dubious gift, namely a debt mounting to $200,000. It’s natural that the world’s attention falls at least as much on the Chinese creditors as on the American debtors.

The objective evolution of this balancing of forces is accompanied by a more subjective and personal factor. While the outside world will, for the most part, always lean more toward Obama (the French being the most enthusiastic), it is henceforth a choice that is more related to the fear of a Romney victory than to the hope of Obama’s re-election. Obama has lost his magic, both in America and in the rest of the world. There was, of course, the inevitable erosion of power and the accompanying deceptions, but it’s not just that. All things considered, there is a little of Valery Giscard d'Estaing [French president from 1974 to 1981] in Barack Obama: a mixture of distance and coldness that can only come from timidity, but that is perceived as arrogance, and a perception that cost him dearly during the first of three debates with Romney.

While he certainly fills the role of commander in chief better than Romney would know how to do today, American voters don’t make their decisions based on foreign policy. The dominant view of many commentators in the United States is that Romney in power would essentially have policies very similar to Obama. Romney can speak like George W. Bush did during his first term; in practice, would he have the means to do things differently from Obama (meaning what Bush did during his second term) and act with a mix of realism and pragmatism?

The perception is mainly that to the rest of the world, a Republican America — as much in regard to foreign policy as to economic policy — would not be fundamentally different from a Democratic America. If true, this would explain why there is less interest in the 2012 election. The difference between the two parties is very real, but it is more apparent on the social platform and, more generally, on a moral plane. It will therefore be Americans who will be most directly affected.

It would certainly be an exaggeration to say that the world is watching America, in the same manner as America looks at the world, with a degree of distance if not indifference when it does not feel directly concerned. Yet the parallel is nevertheless justified: at the moment when the eye of America on the rest of the world is ever more selective, the eye of the world on America is in the process of becoming more superficial.

Dominique Moisi, a professor at King’s College London, is a special adviser to the French Institute for International Relations.



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