An Election Goes Abroad

“Odd.” That’s what German Chancellor Angela Merkel said when told of Barack Obama’s plan to deliver a major campaign speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, right where the Berlin Wall used to be, where Ronald Reagan once famously called upon Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” and not far from where John F. Kennedy declared, “Ich bin ein Berliner” — “I am a Berliner” — to show his solidarity with the inhabitants of what used to be a divided city. One can see her point: We, too, would find it odd if foreign politicians made campaign speeches in front of the Lincoln Memorial or asked to use the Washington Monument as a political backdrop.

But not everyone agreed. “We will prepare a warm welcome for him,” Klaus Wowereit, the mayor of Berlin, announced when he heard of Merkel’s misgivings. And no wonder: What with Obamamania spreading rapidly across Germany — the latest poll shows that 72 percent of Germans want him to win — Wowereit, a Social Democrat, could hardly fail to be enthusiastic about a big, crowd-pleasing, outdoor Obama speech: It gives him an opportunity to get a dig in at the center-right chancellor, to promote his city and to get his picture taken with the most popular American since Elvis.

Though one can understand both sides of what has become a lively little controversy (“Brandenburg Gategate”?) at a deeper level both are missing the point. The truth is that not only Germans but foreigners in general should be delighted in principle by Obama’s plan, however awkward it may be in practice. They should be happy not because of the publicity it will bring Berlin’s mayor but because of what it says about America’s rapidly changing political culture.

To put it bluntly: Since when do American candidates, particularly candidates who are not incumbents, actually conduct their campaigns abroad? No one I’ve talked to can think of a real precedent. Yet here we are, just a few months away from the election, and John McCain has just returned from Mexico and Colombia, where he was promoting free trade, inspecting the war on drugs and, coincidentally, learning the details of the release of 15 hostages. Even if he quietly drops the Brandenburg Gate idea, Obama is still planning meetings with French and British leaders, as well as at least one speech in front of a large crowd of foreigners. This wouldn’t be happening, couldn’t be happening, unless the campaign staffs reckoned that “abroad” matters at some level to American voters.

Of course, we’re still a long way from an American presidential debate on the question of Moldova’s territorial integrity or the Congolese peace process. But clearly, at least some Americans now care a lot about how their country is perceived abroad and are aware of the damage the current administration has done to America’s image. All blustering aside — and, yes, I do realize that you don’t want everybody to like you all the time — this is largely a good thing: It matters how America is perceived abroad, and not just because it’s nice to be popular. When America and American values are admired in other countries, American politicians have more influence on foreign affairs.

It’s also useful for American voters to spend some time thinking about how their president will be perceived abroad because that’s where he’s going to be spending a lot of his time, like it or not. Bill Clinton was a domestic policy wonk who wound up trying to negotiate peace in the Middle East. George W. Bush wanted to do immigration reform and Social Security and wound up doing Iraq. If Obama or McCain is going to be preoccupied with foreigners, perhaps it’s not a bad idea for both to prove that they can cope.

I don’t want to exaggerate this change: The traditionally large gap between what American voters want from their president (“it’s the economy, stupid”) and what their president does much of the time (foreign policy) will surely remain. Indeed, it may turn out that the Obama campaign is mistaken in assuming that American voters will like seeing their candidate in front of a foreign backdrop. Perhaps they’ll be offended.

Nevertheless, it’s worth pausing to note this cultural moment, however temporary. I don’t think anyone ever predicted that the Brandenburg Gate — built by Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm II, mutilated by Napoleon, admired by the Nazis and stranded on the East-West border during the Cold War — would someday be considered a mainstream American political cliche, an acceptable campaign backdrop on a par with New Hampshire diners and the national parks, by anybody’s campaign staff. Foreign policy mavens everywhere: Savor this moment while it lasts.

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