prime ministers and/or high public officials from Russia, China,
Germany, Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, the European Union,
Turkey and Indonesia were almost as red-faced as the network anchors
were (or should have been) over the shifting projections that seemed
to give the U.S. presidential election to Bush and Gore and back
to too-close-to-call every 10 minutes or so. They all issued public
congratulations to George W. Bush complete with the usual diplomatic
effusions about the new Leader of the Free World ("We know
you as a good friend of our country and look forward to the continuation
of close friendship of our people," said German President Johannes
Rau in a typical statement) and had to retract them.
is wonderful. Politicians who get diplomatic egg on their faces
tend to remember the embarrassment as an unpleasant memory even
as the details about exactly why the faux pas came about fade conveniently.
The memories of these particular reminders of the fact that exalted
leaders are imperfect human beings who make mistakes sometimes in
public are likely to be transmogrified over time into a low-level
resentment of the United States as an institution or a state rather
than against Mr. Bush personally or the overeager prognosticators
So how will these and other leaders respond the next time the Leader
of the Free World, whether Gush or Bore, sounds the trumpet for
some new international crusade against terrorism, unpopular leaders
or the latest famine caused not so much by state neglect but by
an excess of state attention? Will they fall in eagerly, lusting
to tax their people and send their young people into danger to please
the President of the United States?
be sure, there are reasons beyond momentary embarrassment for foreign
leaders to have second thoughts about American-led international
crusades. Thereís concern about their own prerogatives and supposedly
sovereign power, of course, and the natural resentment of the "sole
superpower." And thereís the arrogant yet jejune American attitude
of being mostly self-involved until a foreign crisis gets sufficient
play on CNN or bestirs some domestic interest group enough to hit
the leadersí radar screen, at which point it becomes a crisis or
crusade demanding immediate action from the "international
community." Most national leaders Europeans
especially already view Americans as bumptious adolescents
when it comes to international affairs.
so as we saw in the run-up to the Kosovo bombing and as we are seeing
now with the de facto breaking of the Iraq economic embargo while
most foreign leaders will eventually acquiesce in what the 800-pound
gorilla wants, it is seldom easy for them to work up enthusiasm
or respect for the United States.
tendencies are likely to be magnified in the wake of the indecisive
US election, which might or might not be decided today. Can a country
that canít even choose a leader efficiently lead others effectively?
Can a country divided internally present a united enough face to
the rest of the world to be a credible leader or world power? Raw
power is important, and the United States will still have plenty
of that no matter who descends to the Oval Office. But credibility
and determination to see projects through are important too. And
in the wake of this election the United States will have even less
of those characteristics than it has now.
is marvelous news for Americans who have no desire to see the country
they live in the center of a world empire, whether because they
believe such ambitions to be immoral, unwise, corporatist, subversive
of American liberties or simply impractical. The closeness and the
confusion surrounding Tuesdayís election might have done more to
undermine American imperial ambitions than all the third-party activity
and intellectual fulminations of the last several years combined
although those activities were and are important and may
have fed into the divided outcome. A leader of a divided country
is simply not in a position to be an aggressive leader overseas,
to take big risks on behalf of international objectives. Ask Ehud
be sure, political leaders tend to forget as quickly as possible
how narrow their margin of victory was. "Mandate, schmandate,"
John F. Kennedy is reputed to have said. "Iím here, heís there."
Athletic teams donít return victories they win on a fluke or a bad
call by the referee. If Bubya turns out to be the chosen one he
will soon be acting as if he were the very embodiment of the General
his options will still be limited by the outcome of the election.
is divided almost as closely as was the popular vote on Tuesday.
The fact that about 30 House Republicans and half a dozen or so
Senate Republicans routinely desert the party on certain sensitive
issues, whether environmental, taxation or civil rights concerns,
will seldom be far from the minds of White House strategists. Already
Beltway commentators are wringing their hands about whether dread
Gridlock in Washington will continue.
is also possible that, like countless national leaders before him,
the new American president will at some point be tempted to deflect
attention from some domestic problem or crisis by initiating a foreign
adventure that can probably be relied upon to rally the populace
Ďround the presidential flag. Machiavelli specifically advised leaders
to do this in "The Prince" and he was merely putting in
writing what political leaders had done in practice for centuries,
perhaps millennia. "Wag the Dog" didnít begin with a Sudanese
the kind of actions taken by a politician in domestic political
trouble tend to be minor irritations rather than major wars enough
to deflect attention for a few crucial weeks, perhaps, and thoroughly
objectionable and immoral, but not enough to risk actual body bags.
And a politician elected with a clouded mandate and a divided Congress
will find it more difficult even to execute this timeless ploy even
if Slick Willieís excellent adventures in the recent past had not
made the American public a bit more cynical, which they have.
reason this election was so close, after all, was that neither of
the candidates ever captured the attention or respect of the majority
of Americans. Both were more comical than statesmanlike. Neither
was especially inspiring. Plenty of people held their noses and
voted with the party or for the lesser of two evils. This fact will
be glossed over to a great extent in time as the one who is in office
receives the automatic suspension of disbelief any president gets
from most of the courtier press. But it wonít be forgotten entirely.
one aspect of the election that might lead to dubious foreign-policy
adventures is the likelihood that the Gore-popular-winner-Bush electoral-winner
scenario will lead to serious moves to reform or eliminate the Electoral
College as a feature of the US Constitution. The danger here
is relatively subtle and it might make little difference anyway.
But itís worth noting.
is apparently considered impolite to mention it these days but the
American founders not only had no desire to establish a direct democracy,
they had a horror and palpable fear of democracy. Steeped in classical
philosophy that used examples from Greek and Roman history to show
that democracy almost always devolved into mobocracy, which led
to chaotic anarchy and thence to tyranny, they opposed direct democracy.
The writings of Madison, Hamilton and even Jefferson are full of
concern about the dangers of undiluted democracy, of the horrors
that could be wrought by temporary majorities determined to impose
their will on minorities and individuals.
Constitution, then, is theoretically a republican or federalist
document, which gives most power and rights to the people and the
states and gives the central government only enumerated powers.
The founders thought it would be helpful to have plenty of intermediating
institutions between the citizen and the central government, and
the Electoral College, designed as a way for the wisest and most
mature people in a given state to deliberate and perhaps on occasion
to correct the temporary enthusiasms of a transitory majority, was
part of this project of trying to temper democracy.
didnít work out that way, even from the early days. Almost immediately
the electors presented on the ballots became people pledged to vote
for a certain candidate rather than people with a solid reputation
for deliberative wisdom. But the Electoral College system does embody
a semblance of respect for localism, and it forces candidates at
least to pay attention to the concerns of less-heavily-populated
regions of the country. Abolishing the Electoral College wouldnít
solve the problems arising from an election this close; a recount
would almost certainly be demanded or even required by law that
would involve the entire country and perhaps weeks or months instead
TO THE LEADER
phenomenon the founders hoped to prevent through the Electoral College
(and other non-democratic mechanisms) was the idea of a spiritual-political-mystical
link between the people and a single leader. The presidency was
purposely an executive position with not much inherent power because
the founders feared the man on a white horse able to stir up the
people and command their undying loyalty.
Constitution was written before Napoleon and before the "cult
of personality" among communist leaders, but the founders would
not have been surprised at these phenomena. They knew that a leader
with a claim to be the authentic, direct voice of the people, connected
to them directly by some mystical cord of charisma, chicanery and
electoral success, would be more dangerous to liberty. The Electoral
College system was seen as one barrier to establishing that kind
of mystical link that could lead to tyranny and quite specifically
to popularly supported foreign adventures.
could say that the idea and practice of the Imperial Presidency
has arisen and flourished in this country despite the Electoral
College, which was a compromise rather than an ideal structure and
has never functioned as intended anyway. All that is true enough.
But maybe just maybe the system offers at least a slight psychological
barrier to that purported mystic people-leader link that can often
serve to encourage foreign adventures. If eliminating it makes establishing
that link more likely more often, it might be worthwhile to think
about the wisdom of abolition for a while first as our charmingly
undemocratic constitution will dictate anyway.