Science - October 30, 2008

A CHANCE FOR A CHANGE?

No other presidential election gets as much attention as the American one. The Dutch media have already given two years of extensive coverage to the contest that will be settled on the 4th of November. ‘It seems as though people here talk about it more than they do there’, says a Wageningen student who just got back from the US. Like other Wageningen America watchers, she understands the fascination it holds.

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Watching Barack Obama and John McCain calling each other names is quite a spectacle, and that’s what people like. So it’s not surprising that the US election race attracts so much attention in the Netherlands. But Wageningen students in America and Americans studying or working at Wageningen University don’t think this is the main reason for the interest. More important in their view is the US’s big global influence.

Take the credit crisis, says Jolien Veneman, Masters student in Animal Sciences. ‘Dutch prosperity partly depends on the US, so a president who makes the right decisions on this issue is very important for us too'. Jolien left six weeks ago for an internship near Little Rock, Arkansas, where ex-President Bill Clinton was governor. ‘The Republicans are against state intervention, but that is probably what the world economy needs. Something has to be done about the overconsumption and debt in the US.’

Sarah Southwold, an American who has worked for years for the Rural Development Sociology Chair Group, gives two more examples. She doubts whether the US would have invaded Iraq if Bush hadn’t won in 2000. The Dutch government was one of the few European countries to support the invasion, Southwold comments pointedly. So American policy does influence Dutch government policy and the lives of the Dutch. Another example for Sarah is the way Bush’s rejection of environment treaties such as the Kyoto protocol affects us all.

DIFFERENCES
‘If McCain wins, there will probably be little attention for climate change in America, and the natural beauty of Alaska will be irreversibly destroyed’, Lineke Woelder comments from her internship in the predominantly Republican Idaho. Andrew Ofstehage, an Obama voter studying Management of Agro-ecological Knowledge and Social Change (MAKS), sees big differences. If Obama wins, he says, US troops will withdraw from overseas, social security in America will increase, health care will be made more accessible, and more money will be spent on sustainable initiatives such as nature conservation, organic agriculture, and wind and solar power. Whereas McCain’s policy is just like Bush’s, says Andrew.
For Michael Grossman, another important factor is that the new president will appoint three judges to the Supreme Court during his term. The judges play an important role as lawmakers. As a fellow of the Animal Sciences Research School WIAS, Michael has been a regular visitor to Wageningen for 22 years and is – in spite of what he considers an unnecessarily long run-up – very interested in this election and the candidates. He prefers not to give away how he plans to vote. But his last remark sounds like a direct quote from the Democrat campaign: 'This country has a chance to change course.’

Meanwhile, many Americans have very little idea of how much effect their decision will have on the world. At least, that’s Hella van Asperen’s impression. ‘When I watched the results on CNN on Super Tuesday, my flatmates looked at me in amazement and asked if I could turn down the TV a bit. One of my flatmates said she wasn’t going to vote because your address details would then be in the system and you could be called up for jury duty. You can’t refuse, and it can cost you a month, so that you can miss out on expensive practicals or even have to repeat a year. And now I'm back, it seems as though people here are talking about it more than they are in the US.’

Woelders has another explanation. ‘American history lessons are mainly about their own history up to the beginning of the twentieth century. Yet the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have lots of parallels with Vietnam, and the Cold War partly caused the situation in Afghanistan. But if people are ignorant, they’ll believe anything you tell them about the good reasons for a war.’

BLUNDERS
America takes no notice of international conventions and human rights treaties, comments Southwold. ‘They behave like the bullyboys of the world. Every time they fire rockets on Pakistan, support for the militant factions increases, and they undermine the Pakistani government.’ ‘Astonishing’ foreign policy and blunders such as Guantanimo Bay have cost her fatherland its credibility, Southwold feels - when the country had such an opportunity to give the world a good example. Southwold would rather see Obama win than McCain, even though Obama’s statement that he would like to attack Al Quaida in Pakistan worries her a lot.

Vivian Vreeman, an American Masters student of Forest and Nature Conservation, is going to vote for Obama. She thinks it’s good that the Dutch media pay so much attention to the elections, even if they do focus too much on minor issues, in her view. ‘That happens in America too. They shouldn’t do it. The smear campaigns distract from the real issues.’

Meanwhile, the end of the contest is upon us. Vreeman, Ofstehage, Southwold and Grossman all feel the rising tension: which way will it go for the world? Ofstehage is going to drink a lot of coffee and stay up to watch the results live. Who will win, he doesn't venture tosay. ‘Election day is always tense’, says Vreeman, ‘because the American people are making an important decision, and you never know quite what is going to happen. I’ve learned from previous elections that you don’t know for sure until the votes are counted’.

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