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Blue Europe, Red Asia

PARIS – Could Europe be a Democratic “blue state” and Asia a Republican “red state”?

American presidential elections provide a near perfect test to understand the difference between European and Asian worldviews, even if the two continents are far from united internally. If you want America to lead by the power of example, you favor Barack Obama; if you want to be reassured by the continuation of America’s power in a traditional security sense, you probably prefer John McCain.

Whereas a majority of Europeans – with the exception of those who for historical and geographic reasons are obsessed with the return of the “Russian bear” – support Obama, a majority of Asians, particular among the elite, seem to support McCain. This difference stems above all from strategic considerations, but it probably also contains a cultural dimension.

In Asia, Indonesia may look “European” in its Obama craze, but it essentially constitutes an anomaly, easily explainable by Obama’s brief Indonesian upbringing. Otherwise, and for very different reasons, a majority of Asian elites are awaiting the growing possibility of an Obama victory with some bewilderment and even apprehension.

For example, Japanese elites tend to favor continuity over change. In their mind, the hard power of the United States is more important than its soft power, and their vision of an America “bound to lead” is largely unchanged. For them, the US is above all the strategic counterweight needed to balance China.

But the Chinese, too, may very likely be favoring McCain, for the opposite reason. The decline of America’s image and influence in the world does not annoy them. As Asia’s leading power, China has seized the mantle of “hope” from the US. America could regain it under Obama, but not under McCain. Why favor change, when continuity works so well for you?

Indian elites reach the same conclusion for different reasons. The Bush years are seen positively, for they coincide with the consolidation of India’s international status and emergence as America’s key diplomatic partner in Asia. In Singapore, ideological considerations reinforce strategic interests. A very conservative regime naturally tends to prefer a Republican candidate over a Democrat.

But, beyond strategic considerations, something else must be mentioned (with prudence). It is too early to say that the “yellow man’s burden” is about to replace Rudyard Kipling’s “white man’s burden” in world history. Asians are slow to acknowledge that power entails international responsibility. But Asians who have more than caught up with the West may have difficulty adjusting to the idea that the US would for the first time in history not be headed by a white president. How can you define yourself to the West, when the West has so spectacularly and visibly changed its appearance, if not its essence?

In Europe, the reverse is true. The complex essence of Barack Obama is an absolute plus. For the former colonial countries, who have no equivalent to Obama, to support him fully is a sort of exorcism, if not redemption. America is once more paving the way for what Europeans should be able to achieve one day with their own minorities: a land of dreams made possible. In a more classical sense, the depth of anti-Bush sentiment in Europe explains the depth of pro-Obama feeling and Europeans’ relative distancing from McCain’s candidacy.

Europeans have felt oppressed by America’s excessive demonstration of hard power. They would not mind an America that was more modest abroad and more ambitious at home. They are in fact secretly wishing that in these tough economic times, at least part of the “culture of hope” incarnated by Obama would reverberate on them and transform them for the better. They do not want the US only to protect them, but to transform them.

The perception that Obama can transform the view that the US and the West have of themselves is an important factor in the emotional gap that may exist between Asia and Europe on the eve of America's presidential election. On that count, Asia tends to be a status quo continent, while Europe is a revisionist one. For many Europeans, a reinvention of America is Europe’s last hope.

It is a noble hope, but also a dangerous one, for dreams can easily turn into nightmares. That might very well happen if America’s next president fails to redress the financial and economic threats facing his country, and thus the rest of the world.