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VIEWPOINT: World wants to look up to America again

ATLANTA -- Barack Obama's nine-day international extravaganza finished its European phase, and his speech Thursday in Berlin drew 200,000 enthusiastic Germans.

ATLANTA -- Barack Obama's nine-day international extravaganza finished its European phase, and his speech Thursday in Berlin drew 200,000 enthusiastic Germans.

In fact, in a recent Gallup Poll, 62 percent of Germans said that if given the chance, they would vote for Obama as president, while only 10 percent would vote for John McCain. Polling in Britain -- 60 percent vs. 15 percent -- and France -- 64 percent vs. 4 percent -- produces similar levels of support for Obama.

That doesn't mean a lot, of course. The senator from Illinois is running for president of the U.S., not president of Europe. Americans will make their own decisions about whether he or McCain belongs in the White House, and they have the votes that count.

Still, it will be interesting to see America's reaction to Europe's reaction. For some Americans, Obama's popularity overseas will only confirm their suspicions of him as somehow less than authentically American. McCain's campaign has been hinting at that line of attack for weeks, hoping it will blunt the impact of televised scenes of Obamania an ocean away.

On the other hand, electing a U.S. president who was more popular in other countries than their own elected leaders would have some practical advantages. For example, a German chancellor, French president or British prime minister would find it a lot easier to support American policies if they're championed by a president who happens to be popular with their folks back home. We've seen the opposite phenomenon for years, with international antipathy to President Bush costing us support from countries that might otherwise be allies.


But the most important message sent by the strong support for Obama in Europe and around the world doesn't really involve Obama himself. It involves how the rest of the world still sees our country and its role in the world.

Obama is not the president of the U.S.; he is only a candidate for president. And yet thousands of people in other countries are turning out to see him and hear him. It's safe to say that no leader of another country, no matter how charismatic, would be able to draw crowds like that. If he was Barack Obama, leader of Britain's Labor Party, thousands of Germans would not be turning out to hear him speak.

That says something very important about the U.S. and its importance in world affairs. Our reputation has suffered a lot, as Americans who have traveled abroad can testify. But the excitement generated by Obama suggests that the damage to our reputation and moral authority does not need to be permanent, no matter whom we decide to elect as president.

People around the world still place a lot of hope in the U.S., but they want us to live up to the standards we preach. They want us to be what we claim to be -- our better selves. They want to be our partners and allies; they want to respect and even admire our country.

Part of the recent anger, even hatred, directed at America can be explained by the fact that too often we have betrayed those expectations. If Saudi Arabia, Syria or China tortures prisoners, few people are surprised or even outraged. But when a nation that has traditionally stressed the centrality of human rights and that led the world in negotiating the Geneva Accords decides to violate its own principles by indulging in torture, the sense of betrayal is very real.

So when we see the rest of the world excited by Obama's candidacy, it's less about Obama as an individual than Obama as a symbol of an America whose leadership and friendship they might once again trust. The less charismatic, less youthful McCain might have to work harder to restore faith in America, but it would certainly not be beyond his capacity.

Our friends are hungry for an America worthy of global leadership; our enemies are fearful of that America. Regardless of who becomes president, we ought to try to be that America once again.

Bookman writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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