Obama Win Changes Perceptions Abroad

Obama's victory isn't just a symbol of racial progress in the United States. For many people around the world, the victory is a sign of change in American attitudes and offers hope about their own aspirations. Nigerian reporter Constance Ikokwu; Mexico-based freelance journalist Luis Clemens; and Abderrahim Foukara, Washington Bureau Chief for Al Jazeera, discuss the global meaning of Obama's victory.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Kenya, of course, wasn't the only place where people were waiting to see who would be the next president of the United States. All over the world, many watched the election results almost as closely as Americans did. To find out more about the global perspective, we have gathered a roundtable of international journalists. Joining us now are Constance Ikokwu, she's the Washington bureau chief of Nigeria's This Day newspaper, Luis Clemens, a freelance reporter based in Mexico, and Abderrahim Foukara, he's the Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera's Arabic language news service. Welcome to you all. Thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. ABDERRAHIM FOUKARA (Washington Bureau Chief, Al Jazeera): Thank you.

Ms. CONSTANCE IKOKWU (Washington Bureau Chief, This Day): Thank you.

Mr. LUIS CLEMENS (Freelance Reporter): Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: First of all, I want to go around and ask just about immediate reaction to the election results. Constance, you heard Thomas just tell us big celebrations in Kenya, even a national holiday. We didn't even get that here. So tell us about in Nigeria. How did people there respond to the news?

Ms. IKOKWU: It is huge. There was celebration everywhere. Yesterday when I called my office they told me they were still celebrating. In fact, so many Nigerians traveled to the U.S. because they wanted to be here when it happened. So people are excited. You can't believe it. You know, they can't believe it - it just happened. So it is just a massive thing.

You know, people are looking for - we are looking forward to it, and then when it happened they stand out all night singing, dancing on the streets. You know, buying T-shirts. The paper sold out, you know. So it was wonderful.

MARTIN: What do you think people are celebrating? What is it exactly? Is it a change in policy or is there something more - something different?

Ms. IKOKWU: I think it's just the fact that a black man was elected the president of the most powerful country in the world. I think that they think it brings a kind of recognition to the black race. They don't think that it's going to change our lives dramatically, no. They don't even think that Obama - Obama's policies might affect them in a huge way.

But the fact that a black man, you know - the fact that something like racism, they thought racism was going to prevent him from being elected. But it didn't happen. So, you know, that's just it, about race, you know, between whites and blacks. And I think that's the major story, and that's the major lesson from what happened to him.

MARTIN: Abderrahim, what about you? I'm guessing a reaction might vary depending on what country you're in in the Middle East.

Mr. FOUKARA: Yeah. I think the degree of it suddenly varies. But overall, I think there was jubilation. There was relief that Barack Obama was elected as opposed to John McCain.

MARTIN: Really? Why?

Mr. FOUKARA: I mean, for many different reasons. I had someone from my family, actually, call me yesterday, to say that they stayed up all night and - to actually watch the coverage. And he said, I just cannot tell you the sigh of relief that we all sighed when it was announced that Barack Obama had actually taken it. And I think part of it, as Constance was saying, is that people are projecting, you know, their own aspirations and expectations on Barack Obama. He may have won the election, but a lot of people in the region saw him as the underdog, and a lot of people see him as a catalyst for a different kind of debate that Americans - which people in the region feel that Americans are ready for now when it comes to issues like foreign policy.

MARTIN: But when you say relief, I'm interested in what that means because I think there are very different views, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some people are very worried. I mean, one of the core issues for Barack Obama is saying that the U.S. will withdraw from Iraq sooner than John McCain was saying that we would. And I think that the people in Iraq have a divided opinion about this.

Mr. FOUKARA: I think when Barack Obama was going around saying that John McCain was going to be an extension of George Bush in terms of his policies, I think a lot of people in the - it just had an incredible echo with people in the region. And obviously, people, they don't sit back and, you know, peruse the details and the accuracy of this or that statement. But they hear that, and in broad terms, they look at Iraq. They look at tensions with Iran. They look at the situation between the Israelis and the Palestinians. And they say, well, you know, George Bush, yes, he is an extension. He is going to be an extension of - John McCain is going to be an extension of George Bush. And Barack Obama just offers something different. So they attach hopes to him.

MARTIN: Luis Clemens, what about Mexico?

Mr. CLEMENS: Well, there were three things. I mean, first off, there was disbelief. Many people were saying, they actually elected a black man president of the United States? I can't believe it. The second thing was admiration for McCain's concession speech. They couldn't believe that someone who had been defeated so roundly could be gracious in defeat and could actually acknowledge Obama's victory and the historic nature of the victory. And the last thing is unique to Mexico, and that's, it called to mind for a lot of people here July 2000, when Vicente Fox was elected president and displaced the party that had been in power for more than 70 years.

MARTIN: Luis, I want to talk to you about the whole of racial aspect of that. Obviously, here in America, the election of an African-American represents a stunning break with the past. Many people remember segregation. Many people remember racial violence directed at Africa-Americans who were just trying to exercise, you know, basic human right, basic legal rights. But do people around the world know that history? Does that mean anything? Does it resonate or does the election mean something else internally? Luis, why don't you start.

Mr. CLEMENS: It's a couple of things. I mean, first off, it was very interesting. One of the major newspapers here (unintelligible) had a two-page spread detailing centuries of African-American history. It was very, very odd for me as an American to be reading about Plessy versus Ferguson in a Mexican newspaper. So there is a lot of filling in of the blanks here by the media for the public. But beyond that, I think there's also the experience of many people here in Mexico with relatives in the United States who experienced very rough times, who have experienced discrimination. So it's a first-hand issue for them.

MARTIN: Constance, the same question to you. Obviously, there are close ties between many Nigerians and Americans. As you mentioned, many people go back and forth. But colonialism and the history of slavery are two very different histories, very different narratives. In a predominantly black country, which Nigeria is, the election of a black man, one would think it doesn't have quite so much meaning but evidently it does. Can you sort of help us understand what that means?

Ms. IKOKWU: I think people know about the history of slavery. People read about it in school, and even now people still talk about it. So the election of Barack Obama brings back the memories of the past and people think that this is a progress from where America was maybe like 40 or 50 years ago. In a country that is predominantly black, people don't have identity issues and people don't have times where they are being told they cannot reach for the sky. We essentially believe that we can do whatever we want.

But there is an emotional attachment with blacks in other parts of the world, like in America. People travel to America and they see the problems that, you know, black people face. So I think that people think that it's like an elimination, a reduction of a psychological barrier of what the black man is capable of doing. They also think that it's symbolic and that it helps young African-Americans to believe that they can do anything in their own country. So that's what it is.

MARTIN: What about - does Obama's African tie, the fact that his father was a first-generation Diaspora, and even though, you know, he came to study in the U.S. and then went back to Africa, does that have some meaning, even though he's not Nigerian? Is there something important about that?

Ms. IKOKWU: It certainly does. If you look at Africans all over the world, wherever they meet, there's that emotional attachment. In Africa, you don't have to be from the same parents to be brothers and sisters. There's this communal feeling. There is brotherhood. There is sisterhood, you know. So whichever country that you come from, when people meet, they feel that they come from the same place. They should work together. They should talk about advancement of the race and talk about the future. You know, a lot of African countries have been green for - not less than five percent in the last couple of years. So they think that this is progress for them.

MARTIN: Abderrahim, we only have about a minute before we have to take a short break, but I do want to put the question to you and we'll come back to you right after the break. But what about in the Middle East? Is color an issue that would cause some to be skeptical about the life chances of a candidate of color?

Mr. FOUKARA: I mean, it is, in a funny sort of way. I mean, it's almost like racism by reverse because a lot of people, they look at the United States, they're totally fascinated by the United States. But they also look at the issue of Iraq, for example. And they see that what happened in Iraq is a result of a white boys' club as represented by George Bush and Dick Cheney and so on and so forth, and McCain was actually going to be an extension of that. And then they look at Barack Obama, a non-white person, and they say, hey, he may introduce a different sort of dynamic, and I think that's probably why there's so much excitement about Barack Obama.

MARTIN: Abderrahim, we have to take a short break. We're going to continue talking with reporters from around the world about Obama's election in just a moment. We'll come right back to you. Stay with us on Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, a Wisdom Watch conversation with civil rights icon Dorothy Height about what the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States means to her. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, we're going to continue our discussion about the global reaction to the U.S. presidential election with our roundtable of international reporters. I'm joined by Constance Ikokwu from Nigeria's This Day newspaper, Luis Clemens, a freelance reporter based in Mexico, and Abderrahim Foukara, he's the Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera's Arabic language news service.

And Abderrahim, before the break we were talking about the whole question of race and the color-caste hierarchy. Does that exist in the Middle East, in some countries in the Middle East? And is it surprising to people in the Middle East that a black man could be president of what is arguably still the most powerful nation on earth?

Mr. FOUKARA: It is. I mean, up until very recently, people were very skeptical that the Americans may elect a black man for president. I mean, people wanted to see a black man for president but they were skeptical that American society may not be ready yet. Is the white establishment going to allow a black man? But obviously, the election happened. Barack Obama won it. So as I said earlier, that was really - you know, Michel, there's just something funny and unusual about the way peoples, as opposed to individuals, see themselves and project their aspirations.

The issue of race, the issue of colonialism that you mentioned earlier to Constance, remember that large parts of the Arab world were under either French colonialism or British colonialism. And those colonialisms, they were seen in the region through many different prisms. One of them was race, the white race dominating the region, and that still resonates with people. And then you have another dimension, which is that there are Arab and Muslim minorities in Europe, and they go back to their original countries with all these amazing stories about their own difficulties in European societies as non-white people. So that also comes into the mix. And it will be interesting to see how European societies now deal with their own minorities now that we have a black president in the United States.

MARTIN: That's true. I want to also turn now to a policy question, Abderrahim. Do you think that there were sharp policy differences between John McCain and Barack Obama in their approach to international relations and their approach to diplomacy, particularly to the Middle East? What are people in the region expecting from an Obama administration? What are they hoping for?

Mr. FOUKARA: I don't think that they are expecting a 180-degree shift in U.S. foreign policy. People, they have obviously followed the coverage of the U.S. election over the past several months, and there's been a lot of discussion. There's been a lot of light shed on Barack Obama's positions, on John McCain's positions, whether you're talking about Iraq or Iran or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and so on and so forth. So I don't think the expectation is that he will dramatically change the policy.

What people are hoping for is that because of Barack Obama, because he is who he is and because of the way he sees the world, he may not be able to effect that shift but he may be able to introduce a new dynamic, change the dynamics of the debate here in the United States about foreign policy, and ultimately, that may yield some interesting results down the line.

MARTIN: Luis, what about Mexico and Central and Latin America? President Bush, of course, had strong ties to Mexico. It was the only country he'd visited before he became president. But since 9/11, a lot of people think that Mexico - and really the rest of the region, has all taken a back seat to Iraq and Afghanistan. So what are the key issues vis-a-vis Mexico that Obama inherits? What are people hoping for there?

Mr. CLEMENS: Well, I think people have very low expectations of dramatic changes, as is the case with the Middle East. I think people are hoping for, wanting for some sort of immigration-reform package. They're hoping the United States will crack down on the gun trade, will work with Mexico to combat the incredibly large violence that is taking place here in terms of the drug trade. You go outside, I think region-wide there is a lot of concern and a lot of expectations that Obama might relax U.S. government policy towards Cuba. Beyond that, there's Venezuela and Bolivia, and both leaders made overtures to the president-elect, saying they wanted to turn a new leaf, open a new page.

MARTIN: What about Venezuela? There's been a great deal of tension between President Hugo Chavez, President George Bush and the two countries. What about Venezuela?

Mr. CLEMENS: Well, Venezuela - well, Chavez has made very clear in statements just yesterday that he's willing to reestablish full diplomatic ties with the United States. Right now there is no U.S. ambassador in Venezuela. There is no Venezuelan ambassador in Washington. I think there is a great deal of expectation in Venezuela that this can represent some sort of pivot in the relationship between the two countries.

MARTIN: Constance, what about Nigeria and the rest of West Africa? Are there any issues that are paramount?

Ms. IKOKWU: You know, like I said before, people don't think that the election of Barack Obama would make their problems disappear overnight. But I think that one issue that they would be looking at is the United States-Africa command. AFRICOM was set up recently. It's been pretty controversial all over the continent. So it will be interesting to see what the presidency of Barack Obama does concerning it. Will there be a continuation of that policy or will there be another approach?

People are aware that there are different approaches between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. They know that Democrats tend to take a more (unintelligible) approach while the Republicans are more aggressive. So that's an area that they would be looking at. Then investment. A lot of African countries are stabilizing and looking to shoring up trade in their countries. So they will be looking at a good trade policy with the United States and an area where they can get more investment to build their infrastructure. So those are the areas that I think they will be looking at.

MARTIN: But finally, I wanted to ask each of you. Barack Obama campaigned on the idea - or at least the subtext of his campaign was the idea that he would help restore America's reputation in the world. Do you think that is possible? Is that realistic? Constance.

Ms. IKOKWU: I think - definitely, I think it's realistic. I think that the tone, the language, you know, the message, I think that alone heals a lot of wounds. You know, it sort of covers everything that's happened in the last eight years. It might not be easy but the fact that he's talking about it in that manner, I think people are becoming receptive that there's going to be a change in American - in the way America deals with the world and that the reputation of America will change in the next four years.

MARTIN: What do you think about this, Abderrahim? In fact, he was criticized by John McCain during the campaign for being too bellicose in his comments, particularly about Pakistan. So what do you think? Do you think - can he restore America's reputation, whatever that means?

Mr. FOUKARA: Barack Obama's victory speech was truly an amazing speech in the sense that first of all, we carried it live - all of it, obviously. But in terms of addressing not just a domestic audience but an international audience in that speech, I thought what he said about America defeating those who would like to undermine international peace, that supporting the rest of the world in their peaceful endeavors, I think that would definitely resonate with a lot of people.

But if I may say, the one thing, the one thing that night that would have probably done more than any public diplomacy effort undertaken by the Bush administration so far or by any other previous administration, just that picture of Barack Obama with Michelle Obama with Joe Biden and Joe Biden's wife on the stage, that single image just spoke volumes about America and what America can achieve and where Barack Obama may be taking America.

And I think that will definitely, at least for a year, people will cut him slack for about a year or so, which is probably more than they would have cut any other president. For about a year they will cut him a lot of slack, and that picture will just continue to resonate with people. It's just abrilliant, masterful exercise in public diplomacy. No words needed.

MARTIN: Luis, what about you?

Mr. CLEMENS: Well, I think Obama can clearly take a series of simple steps to restore the United States' image throughout Latin America. But I think there's also a certain hardened - almost cynicism about the likelihood of a change in policy from the United States. You have to remember - I mean, as you pointed out, Bush first visited Mexico. The first person he met once he was elected president was Vicente Fox, and after that the region has been largely relegated. So there is hope but it's tempered by long experience to the contrary.

MARTIN: A variety of views here. I can't wait to see how it comes out. We should get back together in a couple of months and see what we think, see how our predictions hold true. Luis Clemens is a freelance journalist based in Mexico. He joined us from his home office. Constance Ikokwu is the Washington bureau chief for Nigeria's This Day newspaper. She was kind enough to join us here in our Washington studio along with Abderrahim Foukara. He is the managing editor and Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera's Arabic language news service. I thank you all so much for speaking with us today.

Ms. IKOKWU: Thank you for having us.

Mr. CLEMENS: Good to be with you, Michel.

Mr. FOUKARA: Thank you, Michel.

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