One week to go to the US elections, it is a moment to pause and reflect about what is happening since the Democratic Convention in Denver at the end of August that sealed the nomination of the first black American candidate for the US presidency.  And as things stand today, Barack Obama will be the first black US president in a week from now.  His lead in the electoral college appears unassailable.

Timothy Garton Ash recently wrote in the NYRB [1], this is our election.  The world’s election.  Our future depends on it and we live it as intensely as Americans do.  All we lack is the vote.

I could not agree more with him.

Four years ago in the run up to the Bush – Kerry election, at NIMD we initiated a website theworldvotes to hammer down that point.  Without any further marketing, it received much positive interest from all corners of the globe in a short space of time.  We only received negative responses from citizens from the US who sent in some negative comments telling us to mind our own business.  However, the choice of the American president is of all our concern.  Why?

The simple answer to this question is the power of the US president to influence not only the well-being of US citizens but also of people outside the US.  US policies in relation to climate change, the financial system, trade, the war against terrorism and its observance of universal human rights all directly impact on the lives of people on other continents.

The unilateral approach to international affairs so deliberately pursued by the Bush administration over the past eight years has done much to undermine the adherence and careful construct of the international rule of law.   This unilateral approach, unfortunately, has done no service to a more peaceful and democratic world.  The mindset that informed this approach needs to change.  In this respect the choice for McCain or for Obama is unique.   Analyzing the messages of the campaigns, voters have rarely been offered a clearer choice.  A choice that boils down to the message of ‘fear’ and the message of ‘hope’.

Observers have qualified these elections as transformational, a qualitative change in how politics is conducted in the US.  Or, in other words, change in the quality of democracy itself.  The negative campaign advertisements that play such an important role in rallying the support of the voters, the negative branding of ones opponents, the cry for battle rather than the mobilization for policy platforms, are the (too) ugly face of democracy.  It is the kind of bad habits NIMD encourage our political partners in young democracies to abandon by facilitating codes of conduct that prohibit hate speech or wiping up negative emotions.

Another worrying aspect of these elections is the flawed electoral administration.  All 50 states apply different electoral systems under which voters are registered, votes are cast and ballots tallied.  Some of these systems create unnecessary obstacles for disadvantaged population groups to become registered, some use outdated voting techniques and some are politically managed rather than professionally.  Efforts to introduce a uniform and straight forward electoral system in the US have all failed so far.  More and more lawyers are needed to settle electoral disputes all across the US.  If the vote becomes another cliff hanger such as the 2000 election that saw president G.W. Bush’s election decided by the Supreme Court, it will be difficult to predict if the system will hold up.

The positive aspect of these elections is the mobilization by the Obama campaign of vast amount of small financial contributions from millions of Americans, making the presidential candidate less dependent on big corporate funding and influence.  It reflects the focus of the Obama campaign on grass roots organization or ‘netroots’, the combined use of the Internet and grassroots organization[2].  This campaign approach has managed to engage and involve specifically the young generation of Americans into politics.  Their enhanced participation could well make – if at least they make time to cast their ballots – the difference in the outcome of the elections.

Back to the international context, the global financial crises and economic recession that started with the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage market in the US, in which these elections unfold.  President Bush and president Sarkozy (in his capacity as the current EU president) agreed to convene a global summit on November 15th in New York to revisit the Bretton Woods international financial architecture.  The failures of the current system are all too apparent and a new balance between government and market, between politics and economics has to be agreed to avoid financial systems spinning out of control once again.  The current crises calls for a reassertion of the primacy of politics over markets.  But is this only a matter of fixing the financial system?

My professional interest at NIMD is the support for the transition and consolidation of democracy around the world.  During the past two decades of unprecedented economic and technological growth and relative freedom in many parts of the world, we failed to use this opportunity to agree on an improved democratic international system of governance to address all the major interrelated international issues that effect our lives such as climate change, poverty, migration, terrorism and crime, trade in women, children and weapons, amongst many others as well.  All of these issues are bigger than can be solved unilaterally.

More than ever before, we need strong multilateral democratic institutions that provide global governance on the basis of international rule of law.  The current crises is not only a financial crises, it is a political crises as well.  It is a crises of lack of governing institutions to tackle the major international issues effectively.  That’s why the single reference to Bretton Woods for the November 15 summit meeting in New York is not correct.  It should rather be San Francisco (founding of the United Nations in 1945) and Bretton Woods combined.

Although president G.W. Bush will still host this summit, either Barack Obama or John McCain shall by then have been elected as the new US president.  Opinion polls around the world show an overwhelming international support for the election of Barack Obama.  If indeed he shall be elected next week, I am sure that it will almost instantly improve the perceptions of the US around the world.  This ‘global perception bonus’ of his election shall be very welcome and necessary for a successful and much needed thorough review of the international governance architecture.

[1] New York Review of Books, Nov 6 2008/Volume LV, number 17, article by Timothy Garton Ash

[2] Ibid,, article by Michel Tomasky