This campaign is historic, of course. It is the first to have a viable female or African-American candidate. Obama and Clinton have energized historically marginalized identity blocs, and Obama has done so without any dynastic advantage. But the 2008 Presidential campaign is historic in another way as well. The campaign is taking place at the dawn of an Asian revival. The United States arose and has progressed entirely in the age of the subjugation, decline, and marginality of humanity’s Asian majority. This election will shape the course of America’s self-understanding in relation to its own diversity and the world.

The Obama candidacy is the most significant, regardless of the election outcome. Several western countries have now elected women leaders. There are no persons of non-European descent who have led a western country despite the imperial history of the West. Obama not only has African ancestors (on his father’s side), he has now energized the African-American community like no candidate since blacks got the right to vote in all states in 1965. The Obama candidacy will break or solidify deep patterns in American politics.

Between 1932 and 1964, the Democrats won six of eight presidential elections under restricted suffrage. They had white working class support in the southern states and the rest of the country. After the civil rights legislation of 1964-65, southern whites largely switched to the Republican party, enabling them to win seven of ten presidential elections. Since 1965, there have been only three African-American senators and two African-American governors in 50 states. Obama is currently the only African-American senator. In short, after African-Americans got the right to vote, there has been a solid white vote bank keeping them away from power.
The American public is now overwhelmingly aligned with the Democrats on policy issues, both domestic and foreign. Yet, currently, about 20 percent of Americans say they want the United States out of Iraq but intend to vote for McCain. If Obama is defeated, in the primaries or general election, it will heighten perceptions of black political marginalization.

Asia figures only marginally in the presidential campaign, but the rise of Asia will force America, and Asia as well, to confront some ideas that have been commonly accepted throughout the world in the last few centuries. The idea of modernity, at the heart of contemporary western identity, is that the West rose and surpassed Asia and the rest of the world in many arenas because it built a superior culture, and not because it suppressed the rest of the world while progressing at only a modest rate. Liberals and conservatives in America take the idea of modernity for granted. The genius of Gandhi was to reconstruct an Indic value system in a colonial society. The momentum of that development slowed after independence. But new prosperity is likely to reorient Indian thought. If it turns out that the selective recombination of their historic conceptions and values works better for India and China, then the terms of engagement between the two nations and the U.S. will change dramatically.
McCain may have the most constructive ideas for dealing with India, even though his overall posture is catastrophic. Clinton is a close second for India and is far more sensible in relation to Iraq. Obama is the most sensible on Iraq and the most questionable for India. None of the candidates has articulated, or likely conceived, of the reforms America will have to make to compete and engage with Asia. The unreconstructed rhetoric of western modernity will enjoy declining credibility in Asia as India and China continue to gain self-confidence.

The competition and engagement between Asia and America is going global. In the world’s poorest continent, the winds of change are blowing; diplomatic competition is intensifying. African economies have begun to rise with their Asian trade after bouts of devastation in the two preceding decades. Vicious cycles of economic collapse, political disintegration, civil wars, and health crises ensued. In all this time, western countries have refused to make even minor sacrifices to alleviate suffering of the Africans, despite their historical relationship. China held a major summit with African leaders in 2006, and India has started with a more modest one. The U.S. may get a president with Kenyan ancestry, but it would take far more for the U.S. to play the role commensurate to its global weight in Africa. Throughout the world, America will face much stronger diplomatic competition as it seeks a deeper engagement.

The Bush administration did more than any previous administration to upgrade U.S. ties with India. The nuclear deal may or may not be completed before Bush leaves office, but his role in envisioning and negotiating it will remain a historical fact. McCain and Clinton have been the most supportive of the new India policy, but even Obama would face substantial incentives to continue in the same vein.

The next step for U.S.-India relations is greater economic integration. American opposition to service imports from India will not disappear, but rising U.S. exports and the overwhelming power of markets will hold sway. Meanwhile, the United States will have to work out major policy changes toward most parts of the world, and, ultimately, and new understanding of its own place in world history.

 

Sanjoy Banerjee teaches International Relations at San Francisco State University.

 

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