"Not really interested."
That's the refrain I have heard about this year's U.S. presidential campaign during my recent overseas travels. The indifference stands in stark contrast to the international mega-hype that the election created four years ago. Then, millions worldwide closely followed the Obama-McCain matchup. Friends, family and colleagues far and wide constantly called, seeking insight into America's upcoming vote. My e-mail inbox was flooded. As Election Day approached, it seemed everyone I knew wanted to camp out at my home to be a part of history. Even those who previously saw the U.S. as a shopping and tourist destination developed a sudden interest in the country's politics.
It was all due to the fresh new face from Chicago, that of a young man wanting to lead his nation and the world. And when he won, the U.S. was cool again.
Sure, the drama surrounding the first African-American candidacy was hard to beat. But now, nearly a full term later, Barack Obama has disappointed his once-adoring fans abroad with a mixed record. They have realized that even the charismatic and rhetorically talented politician can work no wonders.
The U.S. has also lost a bit of its luster.
Despite its global military and diplomatic engagement, the sole superpower is undoubtedly in decline. America seems to be tired of leading the world, and much of the world has become tired of U.S. leadership. No military victory in Afghanistan is forthcoming. Diplomatic ties with European allies are on the back burner. Asia and Latin America are rising politically and economically. The U.S., for decades a role model for its democracy and free-market economy, strives unsuccessfully to be a beacon for new governments in a tumultuous Middle East. As a Pew Global Attitudes Project survey from June shows, Arab countries - and heavyweight Egypt is of particular note - remain wary of the U.S. model of democracy - they would rather emulate Turkey.
The U.S. is, unsurprisingly, caught up in the Obama-Romney clash, but the rest of the world is occupied elsewhere. Europe struggles to rescue the euro, disillusioned by an inability to establish close and confidential ties with the current administration. Many European diplomats could cynically state that a Republican in the White House would offer the trans-Atlantic relationship no less attention. The pragmatic German chancellor, Angela Merkel, is unlikely to suffer any consequences from an American counterpart named Mitt Romney.
Across the Pacific, Asia also focuses on its internal challenges. China is undergoing a rocky leadership change that will likely stretch into 2013. And Latin America, the long-forgotten and neglected neighbor, is occupied with its own economic transformation. The region's success in this endeavor provides evidence that greater independence from the U.S. serves it well. At the very least, it does no harm.
The world sees that no White House occupant can work magic. Even Mr. Obama has succumbed to gridlock and a "kick-the-can-down-the-road" attitude. The U.S. has sent a message that its democracy cannot deliver on pressing social issues - whether economic growth, healthcare or education reform - nor serve as an example for others. This declaration of political bankruptcy is one to which many peoples can relate. That the U.S. can't enact comprehensive reform, however, is especially depressing. Few in Rio de Janeiro, Berlin or Beijing want to hear or read about the decline of a once-admired political model.
The international media will follow the U.S. party conventions because it is their job to do so. But among international political observers, only the back-benchers -not the true power brokers - will attend this time. The excitement of 2008 will not be repeated because the U.S. is on its way to becoming another nation among many.
This is a tragedy.
In the past, the world watched with excitement and fascination a democracy in action that produced a politician who seemed to embody vision and authenticity. Even if the bloom is off the rose, November's race is for many people worldwide already decided. Obama should - and will - get a second term because, they believe, his opponent is not presidential material. Abroad, apathy has set in. There's only a fading memory of something promising yet unfulfilled.