The U.S. Election and the International System
September 14, 2004
By George Friedman
For better or worse, the United States is now the center of gravity of the international system. It is the most powerful country politically, economically and militarily. Therefore, any change in political leadership can have a profound effect on every country in the world. This is a fact that is both universally resented and the fundamental reality in the world today.
Foreign countries are not simply watching the U.S. presidential campaigns passively. Some are trying to influence the elections. All are trying to figure out who is going to win and place bets accordingly. The ideal position for any country would be to do something that is decisive in winning the election for one candidate or another, incurring a debt that can be called in at a later day. The worst thing another country can do is openly intervene on behalf of the loser. Between now and election day, countries are maneuvering continually to gain some sort of advantage. Indeed, the basic characteristic of the international system for the next 50 days will be tacking with the polls.
One of the things to understand about this process is that other countries really don’t understand the United States – and in many cases, they make very little effort to do so. It is a mantra around the world that Americans are ignorant of and indifferent to the rest of the world. There is certainly a great deal of truth in that. However, it is not nearly as true as saying that most foreigners haven’t the slightest idea what the United States is about or how it works. Given the enormous power of the United States and the fact that it is, after all, a country of more than a quarter-billion people, this lack of understanding is quite remarkable. Equally remarkable is the fact that foreigners seem convinced that they do understand the United States. Any French intellectual or Chinese businessman will be happy to lecture you on the nature of the United States – usually in ways that can only be described as bizarre.
The international system is therefore caught at present in a fundamental contradiction. The system is trying to take its bearings from an election in a country that few foreign governments really understand. That, in turn, leads to some fairly strange and sometimes almost inexplicable policy shifts. For example, the Sino-Taiwanese relationship that has lurched along over the past weeks, or Russian behavior, or Iranian statements – none of these can be fully understood without factoring in the election and those countries’ perceptions of it.
U.S. foreign policy under George W. Bush has been defined by the Sept. 11 attacks and the ensuing war. Everything else - from military basing in Germany to trade relations with Australia – has pivoted around the war. In general, this has made most - but not all – countries unhappy with the United States. Bush’s view of the world has created a universal contingency: American cooperation on non-war-related issues has been made dependent on foreign cooperation with the United States in the war.
Obviously, this has made foreign countries quite unhappy. U.S. demands concerning the war are unremitting and substantial. Many countries don’t want to involve themselves with the war. Prior to Sept. 11, the trade agreements, political accommodations and other ordinary traffic of the international system came at a much lower price than they do now. Foreign countries are understandably nostalgic for days when the hierarchy of U.S. foreign policy interests was different – and not nearly as steep. In addition, allies that were vital to the United States during the Cold War, like France or Germany, have lost their pre- eminent position. Had they fully cooperated with the United States over Iraq, they would have still lost their position: U.S. relations with Pakistan or Egypt tower in importance - in Washington’s eyes – over relations with France or Germany.
Whenever a fundamental shift takes place in the international system, nostalgia becomes a dominant theme. Throughout the world there is a longing for a restoration of the old regime – in this case, the 1990s, the time after the Soviet Union collapsed but before Sept. 11. There is a sense in many capitals that this happy time was lost not because of Sept. 11, but because the Bush administration both overreacted and reacted inappropriately to the attacks. According to this point of view, Sept. 11 was a tragedy of substantial proportions, but it did not justify or require a complete reorientation of U.S. foreign policy. The Bush administration’s response was seen as simply disproportionate. In some cases this is simply a self-serving view, an expression of resentment at the price the United States is now imposing for cooperation. In other cases, it is a genuinely held belief. It is, in either event, a widely held but not universal point of view.
One could conclude from this that foreign leaders generally hope that John Kerry defeats Bush. It is a more complicated matter than that. It is fair to say that most foreign leaders do not personally like Bush. At the same time, it has been three years since Sept. 11, and the irresistible pressure the United States has placed on many foreign governments has already caused them to reshape their policies toward the United States and the war. So, for example, Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan or Vladimir Putin of Russia may well personally dislike Bush and his entire foreign policy team. However, they have already placed heavy bets on Bush’s foreign policy and incurred the domestic political costs of doing so. If Bush were to lose and Kerry were to shift U.S. policy dramatically, these leaders would have to scramble, and some of them might fall.
Whatever their personal view of Bush, many of these leaders are past the point of no return. They have already been forced to make policy shifts that have imposed substantial domestic political costs. If there were a major reversal in U.S. policy, they would not only have had to pay the political price, but they would now be completely out of sync with U.S. policy and have to shift once again. For many, that maneuver is not an option. We therefore have the following paradox: On the whole, Bush is neither admired nor respected, for good reason or bad; but at this point, these foreign leaders cannot afford to see another major reversal in U.S. foreign policy. At the same time, their innermost sentiment is that they would love to see Bush fall. This is making it very difficult for them to read the election because they simply don’t understand the issues dividing Americans.
Kerry’s core position has been that the United States has fought the war in Iraq and elsewhere without proper coordination with allies. Many countries would agree that there wasn’t proper coordination, but only in the sense that their arms are still in agony from being twisted. The problem that Kerry describes – that the U.S. is fighting unilaterally – doesn’t gibe even slightly with their experience, because dozens of governments have been persuaded or bludgeoned into collaboration, even at the risk of estranging some leaders from their constituencies. It seems to many countries that Kerry is looking at the estrangement of the United States from France and Germany as emblematic for what has happened around the world. The Italians and Pakistanis wonder what in the world Kerry is talking about.
Kerry is talking to an American audience. What he is saying is this: The alliance system that won the Cold War has been abandoned by Bush in fighting this war. It is essential to retain that alliance in this war. Now, since Britain is working with the United States, as are the majority of other European states, it is clear that he is speaking of the French and Germans, the two major allies from the Cold War that are missing. Kerry is certainly held in higher regard around the world than Bush, but he is confusing other countries by what he is saying. Other countries do not see unilateralism – they would be delighted if the United States went ahead and did what it wanted without involving them. What they are seeing is intense and effective pressure on key countries for multilateral action. The last thing they see is unilateralism.
All of this goes back to basic foreign misunderstanding of American politics. Though both Bush and Kerry agree on the principle that the United States should never fight without allies – that is a non-issue – they disagree on two points. First, Bush argues that the alliance system that won the Cold War is irrelevant today; what Germany thinks on a subject doesn’t matter nearly as much now as what Pakistan thinks. Kerry argues that the European relationships that won the Cold War should remain the foundations of foreign policy today. Bush’s view of alliances is that they are temporary instruments designed to achieve particular ends; Kerry’s view is that they ought to be permanent institutions for managing the international system.
The second issue goes to the heart of what an alliance is. Bush’s view is that every alliance must be evaluated in terms of its utility for the United States and that the United States must pursue its foreign interests, even if an existing alliance resists it. Kerry appears to be arguing that since alliances should be seen as permanent institutional frameworks, accepting limitations on American freedom of action is a small price to pay for retaining critical international institutions. Bush, for example, looks at NATO in terms of its utility in this war and will not be limited by its lack of consensus. Kerry looks at NATO as a permanent and necessary institution that must survive this particular war, even if it means accommodating discordant views.
This is a very old debate in the United States. The simplistic internationalist-isolationist dichotomy has not been at all useful in understanding the American debate. The real debate has always been between two schools of internationalism. One school looks at international institutions and alliances in terms of their immediate utility to the United States, a means toward an end. The other looks at these same institutions as ends in themselves – enhancing U.S. national security by their very existence. Thus, one school looks at the United Nations as a hindrance to the pursuit of national interest. The other looks at the United Nations as being at the heart of the national interest.
This is a subtle issue that is publicly manifested in this debate. One side says that the United States should never be limited in its pursuit of its national interest by institutions or allies. The other says that the preservation of these institutions and allies, however flawed they might be, must be the primary goal of U.S. foreign policy. Bush represents the former view; Kerry represents the latter view.
One of the things hurting Kerry is that his view has, in general, been a minority view in the United States. Americans had no broad objection to NATO, the International Monetary Fund or the United Nations as an instrument of foreign policy, but they have never bought into them as the end of foreign policy. The latter view has very much been the elite view of foreign policy - the Council on Foreign Relations, the Atlantic Council, etc. It has never been the consensus view in the United States. The issue was submerged during the Cold War, when both sides were satisfied by the same institutions. It was not an issue during the 1990s, when there was freedom to maneuver, but it has become the fundamental dividing line now.
Most foreign leaders do not understand this quintessentially American debate. They look at U.S. behavior in naturally parochial views – what is in it for them. In general, they view U.S. behavior since Sept. 11 as unfortunate, but most are far past the point of no return. They are not so much betting on Bush in this election as having already bet so heavily on Bush that they have no alternative any longer. Most are engaged in ingratiating themselves with Bush. Most seem to think that Bush will win the election. They do not seem to understand why. They are not happy with the likely outcome, yet prefer it to the alternative.
Bush is ahead, and we continue to expect him to win. Among other reasons, no Democrat from outside the South has won the presidency since Kennedy. This is not an accident. The view that Kerry has expressed is a quintessentially northeastern, Atlantic perspective. It is not received sympathetically in the rest of the country. Foreign embassies are in Washington, D.C., and New York – which are not really representative of the United States. The sensibility that foreigners pick up in these cities hardly represents the basic views.
Therefore, we expect to see intense yet clumsy maneuvering in the next few weeks. Few foreign leaders have a real sense of American political culture, just as few Americans have a real sense of French or Saudi political culture. The debate in the United States is far from frivolous or unsophisticated. It has been going on for a long time. In the end, we find it doubtful that the view of a Boston liberal will win the day. It seldom has in the past, and it will be hard to make the case today. But on that debate turns, if not the fate, then certainly the interests, of many nations.