For world leaders tripping over themselves to salute their freshly minted colleague Barack Obama, just as for news anchors across the globe struggling to put Obama's victory into context, only one word seems to do the trick: historic. Repetition of that portentous adjective could have dulled its impact. But the sheer scale of the world's interest the blanket media coverage; the election-watching parties, some slickly organized, others spontaneous; the fascination that overrode time zones and deep-seated political apathy to keep people glued for hours to radios and televisions and computers and, yes, Twitter all served as reminders that this really was history in the making.
Obama himself acknowledged the international impact of the poll in his acceptance speech at Chicago's Grant Park, referring to "all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces [and] those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world." He could safely assume that the overwhelming majority of his international audience would be cheering his victory. Respect and admiration for his country slumped during President George W. Bush's years in office. Surveys conducted during the campaign showed that if non-Americans were allowed to vote in the U.S. election, Obama would score massive wins in all but a few countries.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair once enjoyed such popularity Stateside that Americans bemoaned the accident of birth that made him ineligible for a White House run. Westminster is far less diverse than Washington, but if Obama's birth certificate were unexpectedly to reveal him as a Brit, opinion polls suggest he could romp into Downing Street without breaking a sweat. In the green room of a London TV studio, David Lammy, Minister for Higher Education and one of Britain's most prominent black politicians, watched mute and damp-eyed as Obama's family joined him onstage at Grant Park. "There are two families: the royal family and this one," said Lammy finally. "This is going to transform the world's perceptions of America."
In France, where a certain cultural disdain for the uncouth yanquis hardened into political hostility during the Iraq war, confirmation of the Republican rout instantly brought revelers onto the streets to honk horns and shout out their contentment. "This is an important victory for all of us. Mostly, of course for America, but also for everyone else in the world who's tired of a U.S. in the likeness of George Bush," said a gleeful 25-year-old named Clémence who was returning to her Parisian apartment after a night of watching the results with friends. "Tell your readers France says 'Thank you, America, for giving the world Barack Obama!' " (Read "World Leaders React to Obama's Win.")
That sentiment is reverberating around the world, but there are dissenters. A majority of Israelis would have felt more comfortable with a Republican President. Bush gave Israel generous military aid, supported the government during the controversial 2006 Lebanon war and didn't press too hard for the closure of illegal Jewish settlements inside the Palestinian territories. John McCain, a solid advocate of Israel and like many Israeli politicians an ex-soldier, appeared a better bet to security-minded Israelis than a black American with a Muslim middle name. "Obama's an enigma to us," said one Israeli official. "We're trying to figure out what his victory means." Radical Palestinians are at least as lukewarm, believing Obama will maintain Bush's pro-Israeli stance. ("McCain and Obama are both awful," one Hamas official declared.) But ordinary Palestinians are heartened by Obama's win. "We see Obama's victory as a victory for oppressed people, and since we're living under Israeli occupation, we feel he's with us," said a professor from Jerusalem's al-Qods University.
Efforts to anticipate Obama's foreign policy priorities are eclipsed only by concern over the stuttering global economy. "The U.S. is undeniably one of the most important economic entities in the world, and with the ongoing financial crisis, people want someone who can lead the U.S. out of the pit," said Mr. Li, the editor of a Chinese newspaper with a degree in international relations from Beijing University. "Obama showed an obvious advantage over McCain on economic policy during the debates, and in this age of globalization, the U.S. coming out of the recession will benefit everyone."
Yu Jing, a 32-year-old single mother who works at a state-owned oil company, also applauded Obama's victory. "I remember Obama's promise to withdraw the troops from Iraq, and I think it's about time," she said. "Why? It's all about the economy. Without the war, I'm hoping the economic situation will improve, and believe it or not, we are not beyond the influence of the U.S. economy. We have not been paid for four months."
From curing economic ills to ending the war in Iraq, expectations of Obama among some of his foreign fans are stratospheric. Many Britons are schooled in disappointment: they elected Blair and his Labour government in a burst of goodwill in 1997 but watched him leave office last year with much of that goodwill dissipated. "Obama has to avoid repeating the mistake we made back then," said one Labour MP. "We were too cautious, and we wasted our first term when we should have been doing big, bold things with our majority." It's a point that Labour Cabinet Minister Shaun Woodward made more obliquely. Obama, he said, "is not only making history but learning from it." There's that H word again. But as the whole world turns its gaze on one man, the term seems entirely apt.
With reporting by Bruce Crumley / Paris, Lin Yang / Beijing and Tim McGirk / Jerusalem