Professor discusses politics abroad

I conducted this Question-and-Answer session with a KU professor who the U.S. State Department invited to speak in China about the presidential election. I’ve included it because I thought it was important for readers to get a foreign perspective of the United States and its policies. I’m a huge fan of global politics, and this story was an excuse for me to write an international piece for our school newspaper.

The U.S. State Department has invited KU professor of political science Burdett Loomis to speak in China about the U.S. presidential elections. This won’t be Loomis’s first trip abroad to talk politics, as the State Department has also invited him to speak in Malaysia, Singapore, Brazil, Argentina and Mexico. The Kansan sat down with Loomis to discuss what people abroad think about the United States.

What did the State Department invite you to speak about in China?

Burdett Loomis, professor of political science, will give speeches on the U.S. presidential election in China next week. Loomis said he has traveled all over the world, including Malaysia and Mexico, to give speeches on elections.

The basic idea was to talk about American politics, but in an election year it almost always moves around to the election itself. When I was in Malaysia and Singapore, even though I had two or three talks prepared, almost everyone was most interested in the election so I gave that talk and would offer questions about other aspects of American politics.

Will you bring up any issues that might be considered controversial to China such as freedom of the press?

My job is to make American politics moderately understandable. It’s not to go over and make inflammatory statements about freedom of speech. It’s like covering the Olympics, you’re there for sports. I’m there for the support of the American election. If someone raises a question about freedom of speech, I’ll definitely answer it, but as diplomatically as possible.

When you visited Malaysia and Singapore to talk politics, what were they most interested in?

I think there’s no question that in February as Barack Obama was immerging as a very strong presidential candidate, his presence in the mix of American politics was extremely important to them — emotionally interesting as well as intellectually. At the same time I talked to a lot of well-educated folks and many of them were concerned about American trade policies — how much we might be constraining free trade.

But Barack Obama seemed to be the favorite?

Yeah, and there were some places where maybe McCain would win an election with Barack Obama but most places in the world — I’d say 80-20, 70-30 — in favor of Obama. The idea that we are seriously considering electing an African American in the wake of George Bush I think is both exciting and kind of mind boggling to many people around the world.

Was it more about his race than his policies?

Yeah — I do think it is in a general kind of way. Barack Obama is the other. He’s not George Bush; he’s not the son of a former president; he isn’t a white guy who went to Yale. He’s a black guy who went to Harvard. The story itself is so much more international, he lived in Indonesia, he’s someone who had a Kenyan father. So yeah, I think it’s part the race and part the notion that he represents a kind of new era.

One of Barack Obama’s key trade policies is to prevent the outsourcing of jobs from the U.S. to other countries, including Malaysia and Singapore. What was their attitude toward that?

I think the notion of reducing freedom of trade in any way, particularly for Singapore and Malasysia, which depend almost exclusively on trade, I think it’s certainly cautionary for them. That’s part of the whole idea of these trips is that in an Internet age, people can be very well informed. People in Indonesia or wherever can go on the same Web sites we do and learn a lot.

What issues do people overseas ask about the most?

Historically as I’ve gone abroad, one of the questions I get time and time again is, “Explain the electoral college.” And so with a power point, you talk about various states going for Bush or Kerry or for Bush or Gore and what states the Democrats might focus on. They get a sense that this is a contest that’s run state-by-state instead of being one big popular vote.

You’ve also visited Mexico, Argentina and Brazil in the same sort of forum. What was the difference between what South American countries and Southeast Asian countries were interested in?

One of the things that’s interesting is, compared with a wide range of students in Malaysia or Singapore, the English in South America and Latin America is much worse. When I was in Argentina and Mexico recently, we had simultaneous translation. So basically you had a couple of translators and people with ear pieces. That was the single biggest difference in terms of communication. The second big difference is that South Americans and Latin Americans often feel ignored by the United States. We’re close to them; we share a name and continent, but we don’t pay much attention. Our main focus is on Europe or Asia or the Middle East.

What do they say about it?

They would say, “We have these interests and we try to put them forward to talk to the United States but they’ll never respond. They’ll come down and be very arrogant in their policies or they’ll promise something and never follow through.” There were all kinds of examples. Now, many people had been to the United States. The Argentina group — many of them came to the U.S. the following year on an exchange program. And the United States works hard in many ways to promote good relations. But honestly I think there’s this sense that they just don’t feel very important. So you end up with someone like Hugo Chavez who maybe doesn’t reflect the sentiment of most South Americans. But even among people who aren’t crazy about Chavez, there’s a kind of sympathy for that sort of populism, “Screw you United States.” I think part of the problem is allocation of resources. If a major inflammation is going to occur, it will probably occur someplace, roughly speaking, in the Middle East. Russia is growing, China is growing, India is growing, Europe is always important. So in the end I think Latin America, South America and Africa get left out a little bit.

Would you say there’s an anti-U.S. sentiment in South and Latin America?

There’s certainly an Anti-Bush sentiment in both places but probably more in South America. When you went to South America in 2004, they found it highly ironic that the U.S. was having a highly contested election. In 2000 when the Supreme Court decided our election, they sort of gave us a pass saying, “You know, any one can have a close election.” They really had a hard time understanding how we could have elected George Bush a second time. I do think South America has a little more ingrained anti-Americanism. At the same time, everyone likes the idea of America and people like Americans. You don’t find animosity. And even if people are going to criticize you they kind of say, “Now don’t take this personally but,” and you find yourself defending the United States or trying to explain it. You don’t want to get defensive but you do want to explain it.

How did people in Mexico perceive the illegal immigration debate?

I think they just see it as economic realism. They’ve got a relatively poor country and they’ve got a very rich country on their border. When that happens, poor people go find work. I think they find American politicians very cynical — using immigration as a whipping boy — being racist on immigration and not really trying to come to terms with this problem of a poor country and a rich country side by side.

How often do people from these countries bring up the U.S. presence in the Middle East?

It’s there all the time. There’s no question. The American projection of force around the world is part of any conversation. I think the Iraq war was highly unpopular. I think people are mostly sympathetic about the war in Afghanistan. Everyone understands Afghanistan and why we went in to get Osama bin Laden and reduce the effectiveness of al-Qaida and all that stuff. But the connection to Iraq — the reporting around the world is much more objective on Iraq than it is in the United States so the level of knowledge and skepticism around the world is very high because the reporting has been better. I do think that they feel Americans aren’t very good at understanding nuances in other countries.

— Edited by Brieun Scott

Published in the University Daily Kansan on September 12, 2008

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