Watching the campaign on TV, fingers crossed

Bush's policies affect every citizen on the planet, so why shouldn't we all get a say in who wins the White House?

Published September 22, 2004 1:55PM (EDT)

There were few pleasures to be had following Bob Dole's doomed presidential campaign in 1996, but one was the unique brand of anti-charm adopted by the candidate. I was once on the receiving end of it myself, during a stop in New Hampshire. Dole had just inspected a factory and a huddle of reporters gathered to ask some questions. I was only three words into mine when the would-be president cut me off. He'd heard my accent and decided there was no point giving me the time of day. "No votes in Liverpool," he snapped, before calling on the man from the Kansas City Star.

I later heard a reporter from Finnish TV dismissed with a crisp "No votes in Leipzig." Dole's familiarity with both British accents and European geography may have been slightly off, but the point was clear enough. He was running in an American election: He needed to speak to Americans and Americans alone. No one else mattered.

At the time, that logic seemed fair enough. Americans were choosing their own leader to run their own government. Americans would pay the taxes and live with the consequences of their decision. It was up to them.

But now I'm not so sure. For who could honestly describe the 2004 contest of George W. Bush and John Kerry as a domestic affair? There's a reason why every newspaper in the world will have the same story on its front page on Nov. 3. This election will be decisive not just for the United States but for the future of the world.

Anyone who doubts it need only look at the last four years. The war against Iraq, the introduction of the new doctrine of preemption, the direct challenge to multilateral institutions -- chances are, not one of these world-changing developments would have happened under a President Al Gore. It is no exaggeration to say that the actions of a few hundred voters in Florida changed the world.

So perhaps it's time to make a modest proposal. If everyone in the world will be affected by this election, shouldn't everyone in the world have a vote? Despite Dole, shouldn't the men who want to be president win the support of Liverpool and Leipzig as well as Louisville and Lexington?

It may sound wacky, but the idea could not be more American. After all, the country was founded on the notion that human beings must have a say in the decisions that govern their lives. The rebels' slogan of "No taxation without representation" endures two centuries later because it speaks about something larger than the narrow business of raising taxes. It says that those who pay for a government's actions must have a right to choose the government that takes them.

Today, people far from America's shores do indeed pay for the consequences of U.S. actions. The citizens of Iraq are the obvious example, living in a land where a vile dictatorship was removed only for a military occupation and unspeakable violence to be unleashed in its place. The would-be voters of downtown Baghdad might like a say in whether their country would be better off with U.S. forces gone. Perhaps Kerry's promise on Monday to start bringing the troops home, beginning next summer, would appeal to them. But they have no voice.

It's not just those who live under U.S. military rule who might wish to choose the commander in chief. Everyone from Madrid, Spain, to Bali, Indonesia, is now drawn into the "war on terror" declared by President Bush. We might believe that war is being badly mishandled -- that U.S. actions are aggravating the threat rather than reducing it -- and that we or our neighbors will eventually pay the price for those errors. We might fear that the Bush policy is inflaming al-Qaida, making it more, not less, likely to strike in our towns and cities, but right now we cannot do anything to change that policy. Instead we have to watch the U.S. campaign on TV, with our fingers crossed -- impotent spectators of a contest that could shake up our lives. (Those who feel the same way about Tony Blair should remember: At least we will get a vote.)

So we ought to hold America to its word. When George Bush spoke to the U.N. Tuesday, he invoked democracy in almost every paragraph, citing America's Declaration of Independence, which insists on the equal worth of every human being. Well, surely equal worth means an equal say in decisions that affect the entire human race.

That 1776 declaration is worth rereading. Its very first sentence demands "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind." Isn't that exactly what the world would like from America today? The document goes on to excoriate the distant emperor George for his recklessness, insisting that authority is only legitimate when it enjoys "the consent of the governed." As the world's sole superpower, the U.S. now has global authority. But where is the consent?

By this logic, it is not a declaration of independence the world would be making. On the contrary, in seeking a say in U.S. elections, the human race would be making a declaration of dependence -- acknowledging that Washington's decisions affect us more than those taken in our own capitals. In contrast with those founding Americans, the new declaration would argue that in order to take charge of our destiny, we do not need to break free from the imperial power -- we need to tame it.

Such a request would also represent a recognition of an uncomfortable fact. It would be an admission that the old, postwar multilateral arrangements have broken down. In the past, America's allies could hope to influence the behemoth via treaties, agreements and the U.N. The Bush era -- not just Iraq, but Washington's disdain for the Kyoto Protocol, the test ban treaty, the International Criminal Court and the rest -- suggests that the U.S. will no longer listen to those on the outside. As candidate Dole understood, only those with votes get a hearing.

Will this modest proposal fly? Will it hell. Despite Bush's smooth talk in New York Tuesday, his position remains that America does not need a "permission slip" from anybody to do anything. If Washington won't listen to the Security Council, it's hardly likely to submit itself to the voters of Paris and Pretoria.

Besides, every good Republican knows the world is solid Kerry territory. A survey by pollster HI Europe earlier this month found that if Europeans had a vote, they would back Kerry over Bush by a 6-to-1 margin. Bush would win just 6 percent in Germany, 5 percent in Spain and a measly 4 percent in France. No Republican is going to cede turf like that to the enemy.

You would think these numbers would hurt Bush, making clear how unpopular he is in the world. But they don't. If anything they hurt Kerry, suggesting he is the candidate of limp-wristed foreigners and therefore somehow less American. We may find that a sorry state of affairs, but there is little we can do about it. In the democratic contest that matters most to the world, the world is disenfranchised.

By Jonathan Freedland

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