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U.S.: Global Impact -- Could Kerry Victory In Election Further Complicate Relations With Europe? (Part 2)

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The United States is the world's only superpower, and its choice for president on 2 November will have an impact on political, economic, and military situations around the globe. The countries of Western Europe -- close supporters and allies of the United States for more than half a century -- will be particularly affected. President George W. Bush's term in office has been characterized by strains in relations with the European allies, mainly over Iraq, but also over economic, environmental, and judicial matters. Bush's main challenger, Senator John Kerry, has pledged to revive ties with Europe and involve the allies in U.S. aims. In the second of a three-part series on the global impact of the U.S. election, RFE/RL finds that a Kerry victory could make things even more complicated for Europe.

Prague, 18 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- As the U.S. presidential election approaches, a novel idea has popped up in a number of European media commentaries.

Since the election will touch the lives of so many people around the world, the commentators say, these same people should be able to vote alongside American citizens for the next U.S. president.

The idea is quixotic, of course, and is said largely in jest. But it illustrates the extent to which the sole remaining superpower sets the agenda for the rest of the world.

As Kerry himself pointed out to U.S. voters in a campaign appearance yesterday: "You get to vote not just for the president of the United States, you get to vote for the leader of the free world. And people all over the world are waiting to see whether we're going to get back in touch with the values of our country."

The agenda pursued by the Bush administration is one that has shaken many Western European allies -- notably France and Germany -- who have been among Washington's closest partners for decades.
The big European Union members split into strong supporters of the Bush administration's Iraq policy, such as Britain, and equally strong opponents, like France and Germany.

Peter van Ham is an analyst at the Clingendael Institute for International Security in the Netherlands. He said Bush's perceived unilateralist tendencies have made many Europeans feel they have been through a period in which solid ground has disappeared from under their feet.

"The unity of the West, and the trans-Atlantic alliance in particular, all these kinds of things which have been basically the moorings of European and West European politics now have to be reconsidered," van Ham said. "Perhaps they are eroding. Perhaps they no longer even exist."

A survey in Europe -- published in September by the HI Europe market research firm -- indicated that, if Europeans had a vote, they would support Kerry over Bush by a margin of six to one. For Europe, therefore, the U.S. election is a moment of utmost importance, possibly a fork in the road.

As van Ham said he sees it, divisions will only widen with Bush's reelection.

"It's clear that if President Bush gets reelected, we will see a continuation at least, or most likely an escalation [of the prevailing trend], and a radicalization of U.S. foreign policy," van Ham said.

Van Ham said the Bush administration -- through its doctrine of preemption -- has called into question the whole body of international law that has been built up over the last six decades. Washington's decision to invade Iraq led to serious divisions with France and Germany and between European Union partners themselves.

The big European Union members split into strong supporters of the Bush administration's Iraq policy, such as Britain, and equally strong opponents, like France and Germany.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair's political future can be seen as closely tied to the result of the U.S. election. A defeat for Bush would leave him more isolated and exposed to the many domestic critics of the Iraq war. A win by Bush, on the other hand, would keep Blair at center stage as the closest and most determined ally of the United States.

And it is not only a question of Iraq. The trans-Atlantic partners have gone separate ways on an unprecedented range of activities -- from the Kyoto climate-change protocol to the International Criminal Court.

In addition, political analyst James Walston of the American University in Rome noted that Europeans feel more exposed to terrorist attacks because of Bush's policy of pursuing the war on terrorism through Iraq.

"We have seen very much that the war [in Iraq] itself has made Europe a much more dangerous place," Walston said. "In Spain, [a major terrorist attack] has happened. In other places, we are all on edge. And clearly it is not surprising that most foreigners -- non-Americans -- would much rather have anyone but Bush."

Kerry is generally seen in Europe as being more in tune with European perceptions concerning the value of international law and working through multilateral institutions. As a result, Walston said he sees a Kerry victory as able to heal much of the estrangement of the last four years.

"If Kerry wins and does what he says he would do in the last debate [with Bush], which is to open up to Europe and the rest of the international community, to share responsibility, I think that would go a long way," Walston said. "It would bring the [foreign] governments on board, and it would bring the majority of the people on board."

Ironically, however, that is the very thing that could complicate life for European governments.

Van Ham said there is an argument that holds that the motives behind the attitudes of European governments who oppose the Iraq intervention are simple to discern.

"If President Bush gets reelected, we know what we have," van Ham said. "We can say, 'We have no dog [stake] in this fight. This is not our conflict in Iraq. It is your mess. You solve it.'"

But Kerry has made it a major feature of his election campaign to assure U.S. voters that he can deal more skillfully with U.S. allies and engage them to relieve some of the massive military and financial burden now shouldered almost entirely by the United States.

This means oppositionist Europeans will be forced into thinking about how to help the United States -- or else run the risk of appearing to be only "fair-weather friends."

"What will the Americans say? They will say, and Kerry will say with them, 'Well, that's a disillusionment. So now we are 100 percent sure these allies are not worth anything for us.' And that's a big dilemma, because we [in Europe] can see this coming," van Ham said.

In particular, France and Germany would have difficult readjustments to make. Both have been adamant about not sending troops to Iraq or allowing NATO to be involved in the conflict in any significant way.

The problem is that for his domestic audience, Kerry has pledged a strong U.S. hand in Iraq to bring the operation there to a successful conclusion. But that stance does not differ much in the short term from Bush's policy.

The insurgency in Iraq is continuing unabated, and no exit strategy looks especially viable. Europeans, therefore, appear to face the choice of either dipping a toe into the Iraqi cauldron, or getting burned by remaining aloof and further damaging trans-Atlantic relations.

See also:

"U.S.: Election Seen As Multilateralism Versus Unilateralism, But Rhetoric Clouds Reality (Part 1)"
"U.S.: Kerry, Bush Spar Over Policies Vis-A-Vis Muslim World But Offer Similar Visions (Part 3)"