I spent the spring of 2004 in London. It was interesting time to be an American living abroad; the war in Iraq marked its one year anniversary, and the abuses at Abu Ghraib appeared on the front pages of every newspaper. And London, of all cities, was an interesting place for an American to find himself, given the relationship between our respective leaders and the war they were waging together. As was the case back home in the United States, Britons were split on their perspectives of the U.S. led war; and many of those Britons who opposed the war sought out conversations with me regularly, trying to understand just what America was thinking. More often than not, the conversation turned to George W. Bush. How could Americans be so foolish to believe in him, they wondered.
I recall a conversation I had with a couple while walking through Russell Square. They overheard me speaking with a friend and recognized my American accent. Soon after initiating a conversation with me, they wanted to know my perspective on the war. I told them I had been opposed to the war from the beginning, and that I believed the war was making the world more dangerous, not less. I remember the woman in this couple responded by saying, “See, the thing I don’t think Americans understand is that everything America does affects the rest of the world. It is like ripples in water. The ripples from the war are going to reach us here in Europe long before they make their way to America.” She said this just weeks after the train bombings in Madrid. (And years before the train bombings in London, and the recent plot just last week in London and Glasgow.)
Beyond questions about Iraq or George W. Bush, Britons I spoke to had questions about John Kerry. Over the course of that spring, Kerry emerged as the Democratic nominee for President and the opponent to a second-term for George W. Bush. “Can he do it?” they wondered. “Will America support him over Bush?” “Can Bush be beaten, and if so, can Kerry really do it?” My answer was always the same: I hope so. They did as well. What was interesting to me was how engaged and informed these British citizens were in the very early stages of the U.S. Presidential campaign season. It was a level of investment that surely rivaled that back in the U.S. at that point. In London that spring, the thirst for new American leadership was real and powerful. And that was three years ago.
Experiences like these led me to reflect on my role as a U.S. citizen, and therefore my role as a voter. They caused me to realize how profoundly and vastly the President of the United States, whoever he or she is, affects the lives of people all around the world in very significant ways. How tremendous it is to think that a single person from a single country can actually set such a tone for international relations worldwide. How important the responsibility is for that leader to envision the world in whole with senses of reason and prudence, fairness and honesty, as well as possibility and expectation. How great the ripples in the water truly are.
And what’s more, how small the pond actually is when you think about it. In fact, just this past weekend, billions of people worldwide united on the issue of climate crisis by attending Live Earth’s seven concerts in seven cities: New York, London, Johannesburg, Rio de Janeiro, Shanghai, Tokyo, Sydney, and Hamburg. Picture the potpourri of faces in those crowds. In the context of the arc of human history, something on the scale of these concerts is certainly significant. It is an achievement merely because of its ability to unite people of differences around an issue of common interest. It proves that despite our differences, we have the unique ability as humans to create community that transcends borders.
That single proof is important for two reasons: first, in that list of cities above, not a single capitol from the Middle East is represented, which is symptomatic of a greater exclusion of that region from the world. Second, the leadership of the next U.S. President simply has the inherent responsibility to seek a lasting peace in Iraq and the surrounding region. There is nothing more important our next President can do. There is also nothing more daunting our next President can do, which is why our next President must be someone with a very special set of skills, ambitions, and perspectives.
Our next president cannot approach the war in Iraq as a businessman. Our next president cannot approach the war as a career politician, or a partisan mouthpiece.
Our next president must approach the disunity in Iraq, and indeed the world in general, as a community organizer.
In this election, we as Americans have to appreciate the global impact of our vote. We have to imagine how our leader might set the tone for foreign affairs among the nations of the world. We have the responsibility to elect someone committed to sending ripples of hope and peace to every corner of the world. We know what does not work because we have already tried it time and again: war, occupation, and arrogance.
This election is a rare and important opportunity to elect a leader who might reclaim America’s purpose and influence internationally. This is a chance to elect someone who is primarily committed to our foundational virtues of liberty and justice above all else. This is a chance to build a new legacy for those virtues that resonates not just here in America, but in corners of the world still striving for liberation.
We know this strategy works because we’ve seen it work before – in the example of Martin Luther King, Jr. He showed how a single dedicated American fighting disunity with brotherhood, answering hate with love, and ending oppression with revelation can affect people the world over. In King we find an American whose example honored not only his countrymen, but also inspired others around the world to embrace his message and tactics, both then and now. What’s more, he proves that impact is not contingent on experience, but on expertise; not on age, but on agency. He accomplished all he did in only 39 years. He represents the best of what America stands for, and his legacy stills represents our nation well. This is the type of legacy we must seek in the election of 2008.
The importance of a legacy like King’s was another lesson I learned while visiting London. On the façade of Westminster Abby, among ten statues of Christian martyrs from around the world, there was a single American: Martin Luther King, Jr. Of all the great men and women in United States history, it was he who was chosen to stand along those on the façade. And looking upon his statue, I felt proud that an American was represented. I felt proud that an American had lived a life worthy of such respect by people around the world.
It is my hope that our next president will be someone similarly committed to peace and justice; similarly insistent on the importance of unity; similarly able to envision hope where there is only despair; similarly able to inspire new ways of living together; similarly able to send waves across the water.
My hope is that our next president is Barack Obama.