PARIS - The duel between Hillary Clinton and Barrack Obama commanded almost as much attention at the Davos World Economic Forum as it does in America.
The global power balance may be shifting slowly toward Asia, but all the more reason Asians, Europeans, Arabs and Africans want to know who will be governing next year in Washington.
In my informal survey of non-American attendees, Obama was the clear preference. (Actually, the biggest winner, stated over and over by bankers, businessmen, academics and journalists, was ABB - "Anyone But Bush.")
But underneath the surface enthusiasm for Obama, one discerned many uncertainties about his future policies. My unscientific survey didn't reveal any John McCain backers. The minority who preferred Clinton were worried about whether Obama was prepared to handle the staggering complexities of our world.
The buzz on Obama was that his victory would revive America's sinking image abroad. Typical were the remarks of Musallam Ali Musallam, the Saudi managing director of Skab Group; he holds a doctorate in international relations from Georgetown University.
He has worked hard to revive the large-scale Saudi student presence in the United States (which shrank dramatically after 9/11) because he believes that exposing Arab youths to America is crucial. He says, "If we don't send them to America, Osama will woo them to come to Afghanistan.
"We (alumni of U.S. universities) are the ambassadors for the United States," he continues. "But George Bush made it so hard. Bush destroyed so much of the good will toward America. It will take a long time to repair."
Obama, says Musallam, would present a dramatic contrast to George Bush's style of unilateral military action. "Obama's conciliatory approach is much more of a change than someone who is part of the old system." Musallam included Clinton in the latter category.
India's Shashi Tharoor, a widely published author and former United Nations undersecretary, was even more emphatic: "Of course, Obama's election would change the perception of America," he told me. "My kids all see this as an enormously exciting transformation in how Americans see themselves."
Singaporean Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, spelled it out even more dramatically, saying an Obama victory would "eliminate at least half the massive anti-Americanism felt around the world." Mahbubani said that, even though Obama was a Christian, the election of someone whose middle name was "Hussein" would make young Muslims ask why their countries were stuck with autocratic leaders.
Obama was perceived by Davosians from developing countries as far more willing than Bush to cooperate with other governments and recognize the need to consult with emerging nations such as India and China.
Yet, despite the excitement aroused by Obama, I found uncertainty about whether he could cope with the huge foreign challenges he'd inherit. Those challenges were brutally evident at Davos, as world markets swung wildly, the shocks worsened by a lack of regulation in financial markets. The next U.S. president will be called on to rethink the entire architecture of international institutions built after World War II that are no longer adequate for today's problems.
At Davos, few had any idea who would make up Obama's economic or political team. One German banker told me, "Germans prefer Hillary because the world is so complex, and you need experience." An Indian businessman wondered whether Democrats would pressure Obama to abandon the free trade system that enabled India and China to climb the global economic ladder.
Several Arab businessmen preferred Hillary, because they hoped she'd make Bill her Middle East emissary. Obama would be a novice at navigating the deadly swamps of Middle East peacemaking.
Indeed, one Mideast trap that awaits the next occupant of the White House was evident at Davos. Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki made clear, in several appearances, that Tehran believes the next U.S. president will have to accept Iran's right to a nuclear fuel cycle. Obama made a dramatic offer to talk to Iran without preconditions. If elected, however, he'd have to tread carefully with a regime eager to take advantage of inexperience and perceived weakness.
Davos made clear the sharp contrast between the excitement generated by Obama and the steep learning curve he'd face in a deeply unsettled world. To restore America's standing, he'd need a team that could handle unprecedented shifts in global power. The world will be watching intently as Americans go to the primary polls.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by e-mail at trubinphillynews.com.