Hi all, I am passing on the message below on behalf of AID member Stephanie Mott who is an American abroad in Berlin, Germany.

For an American living abroad, trying to stay in touch with American, Californian and Sacramento politics presents an interesting challenge. California-brand direct democracy especially makes me question where I stand: despite my status as a registered voter of Sacramento County, despite my careful poring over the Official Voter Information Guide, what business do I really have voting on local ballot measures in a city over 5,500 miles away from where I currently spend most of my time? And will I ever feel the effects of my choice for School Board Member as much as someone whose child currently attends school in Sacramento? Surely not. Much more tangible for this Sacramento voter is American foreign policy, which has a dramatic effect on my ability to get along with my neighbors. Living abroad, if nothing else, has made me intensely aware of global opinion on our national politics.

Since moving to Berlin a little over a year ago, I have learned that by stating my American citizenship, I am essentially engaging in polemics. The reactions to my nationality range from an enthusiastic “cool!” to angrily muttered expletives. Either way, people always seem to have something to say about American politics, and these days – I must admit – even America-fans look to my homeland with a bit of disgust and a lot of anxiety. In the face of such opinion and despite my own tendency to criticize elected officials, I frequently find myself on the defensive, trying to explain American policies to friends or acquaintances – even defending “the principles” behind policies I myself don’t agree with.

The upcoming presidential election has sparked particularly strong opinions here. By virtue of American’s power, our country’s political decisions affect Europe in many ways, and although their hands are tied, many Europeans wish they could influence these decisions. Germans chew their fingernails, fearing a second Bush term while refusing to admit that a Kerry administration – diplomatic style and Francophile abilities notwithstanding – won’t be able to turn back the clock and “re-do” Iraq.

While most of my fellow Berliners sit back, watch, and occasionally lodge complaints with ex-pats like me, there are a few who have taken a very pro-active approach to the matter. Vote44, a European-American initiative with a large presence in Berlin, enjoys the participation non-Americans who see it as their duty to persuade ex-pats to vote. This effort is based on the somewhat misguided logic that Americans choosing to live in Europe will choose to vote in the American presidential election the way Europeans would if they could and elect John Kerry. Even assuming this was the case, unless all of the approximately 30,000 Americans living in Berlin were registered to vote in Florida, it is uncertain at best whether they could influence the election.

The potential effectiveness of Vote44’s efforts aside, the group’s mere existence asks us to consider the role of Americans living abroad. What is that role? Surely it is important to vote, but mailing our absentee ballots cannot be the end of the story. National politics does not merely have a direct effect on an ex-pat’s life; it also receives extensive coverage in the foreign press. This makes it easy for me to keep abreast of national issues, but Americans are not alone in informing themselves. I have on so many occasions gone to a German political event, only to spend the entire reception answering questions on American politics. The world generally knows what we Americans are doing, but they still want to know why we are doing it. We should be thinking of how we represent our country – professionally and personally – and how we present our American-ness to others – whether in a speech, an article, or over a beer at the local pub. It is our role as de facto PR-officers we should reexamine.

One American who recently set a good example for informal representation is former Senator Bob Kerrey (Democrat-Nebraska). On the day of the first presidential debate, Kerrey engaged in a conversation with Germany’s foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, moderated by the American Academy in Berlin. On this occasion, the might of the United States on the one hand and the European (and American) desire for international partnerships on the other were discussed candidly. Both men were friendly but honest – the way allies should be.

How does an American living abroad balance being honest about her patriotism with respect for her friends’ and colleagues’ views? I am an American every day, not just when I mail my absentee ballot or file my taxes, but I do not live in a place where American values can be taken for granted. I think the best I can do is to communicate, to point out that American politics cannot be judged from a purely German perspective any more than German politics can be judged from a purely American one. And it’s precisely these different perspectives that I wish I could better communicate to friends and colleagues back home. Ultimately, it’s the exchange of ideas that is important. Regardless of the election’s outcome, Americans abroad should contribute to a productive exchange between American and the world. I am sure that we do this already, just as foreigners living in the United States do, but it never hurts to remind ourselves of that role. I realize that whether I like it or not, whether I’m qualified or not, people will see me as an informal ambassador of my country, and that’s fine with me. It always makes for lively conversation, especially in election season.

Advertisements