What was most interesting about the throngs who came to see Barack Obama in Europe last week was never articulated in public. It's that they adore him for America (the Bild tabloid called the German reaction "love at first sight") but would never get to vote for someone like him at home.
To be sure, Europeans swinging American flags again instead of burning effigies of the U.S. president is a refreshing sight. To many Europeans, Obama feels like one of them—mildly left of center, talking about cooperation, promising that America will act on climate change. But Europe's adulation of the half-Kenyan senator has some observers asking an obvious question: he'd be a shoo-in if Europeans could vote in America, but would they pick him in Europe? Would a German Turk, a Dutch Indonesian or a Franco-Algerian stand a chance of making it up the ranks of the Continent's major political parties? "Absolutely not," says Jerome Mack, a London-based corporate diversity consultant.
In the main, that's not even due to overt racism, says Mack. "Europe's approach to ethnic diversity has been benign neglect," he says, and it's waiting (and waiting, and waiting) for minorities to perfectly assimilate. Often, Europeans don't even seem to think it's an issue. In June, many Germans were simply offended when Peter Löscher, CEO of Munich-based Siemens, said that the multinational tech company's senior management was too male, too white and too German. Just as important, the Continent's political systems—dominated by powerful party machines that encourage conformism and homogeneity—make it particularly difficult for outsiders. Bypassing the party establishment and appealing directly to voters, as Obama has done, would be a virtually impossible path. While Europe's parties have nominated dozens of M.P.s with immigrant backgrounds, they're usually pigeonholed as specialists for minority issues. None has gained fame with a national agenda.
Some argue that an Obama win would help blaze a trail for Europe's minorities as well. Already, his candidacy "holds up a mirror" to the French (and other Europeans) on their unresolved integration issues, argues Dominique Moïsi, deputy director of the French Institute for International Affairs. Michael Stuber, a diversity expert in Cologne, thinks that a decade from now, Europe too will be ready for minority candidates for high office. What happens if Obama loses, now that so many Europeans have invested their hopes in his victory? The Atlantic that grew just a bit smaller last week will be just as wide as usual.