Saturday, November 20, 2004

Get Over It?

The Brussels-based Parliament magazine, an in-house glossy for MEPs, asked me to write a piece describing "the US view of the European reaction to the US elections". Once I figured out what that meant, I wrote the following piece:

US to EU: Get over it!

Bush’s re-election may not have been popular in Europe, but could it turn out to be good news?

Despair…frustration…clandestine joy…even perverted glee. These are just a few of the immediately detectable European reactions to George W. Bush’s re-election as US president.
Granted, they are also some of the responses found among Americans themselves – even as they handed Bush a surprisingly strong victory on 2 November. But it’s been a revealing exercise during the campaign and in its immediate aftermath over the last several days to gauge the European mood.

After all, Europeans seemed to have invested an unprecedented amount of emotional and political interest in an American election. For the most part, they wanted Bush to lose to his Democratic challenger, John Kerry. Some went so far as to set up websites such as Others, such as UK’s Guardian newspaper, attempted to influence the election outcome more directly. (The paper’s letter-writing campaign aimed at undecided voters backfired spectacularly. Clark County, which the Guardian had targeted, was the only one in the state of Ohio to give more votes to Bush this year than it did in 2000. Bush owes the Guardian’s editors a thank-you note.)

So it’s no surprise to see such widespread shock and dismay over Bush’s victory. Congratulatory messages from European leaders were delivered through gritted teeth. Newspaper headlines (the UK Daily Mirror’s “How can 59,054,087 people be so DUMB?” and LibĂ©ration’s “L’empire empire” come to mind) were harsh and dismissive. Some reaction was even gleefully condescending – as if Bush’s re-election confirmed the view held by some that Americans are overweight rubes who care only for their SUVs and low tax rates.

Then there was the rash of condolence emails from Europeans to their American friends: one showed a map of North America showing the states that voted for Kerry renamed the ‘United States of Canada’ and the rest ‘Jesusland’; another circulated Michael Moore’s ‘17 Reasons Not to Slit Your Wrists’.

Putting aside the derision, how have Americans accepted this unusual level of concern over how they chose to exercise their democratic rights? Well, their message to Europeans who’ve had such visceral reactions to the US election result might best be summed up in three words: ‘Get over it.’ (Or perhaps three other, more crude words suggesting an anatomically impossible physical act.)

But this presupposes that a significant number of Americans would even concern themselves with how they are viewed in Europe or anywhere else abroad. If that were the case, Kerry would be rehearsing the oath of office. But his strategic decision to make a key part of his campaign a promise to restore US credibility around the globe clearly did not pay off.

Let’s face it: Europe’s predominant support for Kerry was mainly the product of wishful thinking. The Democrat was not going to pull US troops from Iraq, did not support the Kyoto protocol, and talked just as tough as Bush about “hunting down and killing” terrorists. He even went out and shot a goose. It was ridiculous to think his election would suddenly turn the US into some bastion of multilateral sustainable development and social cohesion.

A good example of this mindset was the post-election statement issued by the European Parliament’s Green group leaders, Monica Frassoni and Daniel Cohn-Bendit. “We regret that a change of course in US foreign, security, environmental and social policy – hoped for by many Europeans – is now very improbable,” they opined. But this ignored the fact that Kerry had offered to make none of these dreams come true.

Several American commentators have called on Europe to stop fretting about Bush’s re-election and start dealing with it. “President Bush is no fluke, and there’s no wishing him away,” wrote conservative columnist James Glassman in the Wall Street Journal Europe. “The good news is that Mr. Bush isn’t devious or unpredictable. He’s entirely open and obvious. A major theme of his campaign was that he does what he says.”

In fact, Europe should be pleased as punch with the Bush victory for another important reason. A Kerry win would have forced reluctant EU nations to consider helping to clean up the mess Bush has made of Iraq. With Bush still in the White House, Europe’s political leaders can continue to keep their hands clean – and wring them at the same time. And, as many have noted, an emboldened Bush may give Europe just the impetus it needs to get its foreign policy act together.

Some Europeans realize this and are already choosing to play the hand the US has dealt. “The re-election of George W. Bush means that the Europeans will be under far greater pressure to come to grips with the U.S. foreign policy agenda,” says Werner Weidenfeld from Germany’s Bertelsmann Foundation think tank. He predicts Bush will now send the Europeans more demanding signals but that this only provides an opportunity to act.

To their credit, Frassoni and Cohn-Bendit seem to have realized this, too. “In the next four years the role of the European Union as a counterweight to the US will become ever more important,” they proclaimed. “Only a strong, united Union that is able to act decisively when needed, will be capable of fulfilling this task. Therefore, a rapid ratification of the Constitution must become priority number one in Europe.”

So is that Europe’s silver lining in the Bush re-election – which could rally EU leaders to a common foreign policy and EU citizens to a realization that only with a European constitution can there be an effective check on US hegemony? Would we see headlines in US papers asking, “How can 450 million people be so UNITED?”

Don’t bet on it.

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