November 9, 2000
Presidents, 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.
This 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 at CNN.
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?
To 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.
And 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.
These 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.
This 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 Barak.
To 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 Will.
But his options will still be limited by the outcome of the election.
Congress 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.
It 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 pharmaceutical factory.
But 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.
The 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.
The 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.
It 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.
The 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.
It 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 of days.
Another 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.
The 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.
You 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.
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