Christopher Caldwell: Citizens of the world unite

By Christopher Caldwell

Financial Times

Published: October 29 2004

When Saddam Hussein staged a referendum on his rule in 2002, he chose as his campaign theme song “I Will Always Love You”, by Whitney Houston, the American singer. This anecdote usually gets raised by opponents of the Iraq war, eager to show how little hostility Iraq bore the US at the time. But that is the wrong inference. The better lesson is that America is as inescapable for its enemies as for its friends.

These days it is more inescapable than ever. In French bookshops, half of the current affairs sections are taken up by books relating to Tuesday's US presidential election. You can choose from more biographies of John Kerry in a German bookshop than you can in an American one.

For the first time, voters in every country have been polled about how they would vote if they could - as if the office in question were not president of the US but president of the world.

American politicians have begun responding to these foreign “constituents”. Mr Kerry has loudly made the case for better relations with allied governments and the peoples they represent.

True, he is appealing ultimately to the self-interest of US voters - but he cannot do so without credibly soliciting the hearts and minds of citizens of the world. And political pitches to the great mass of non-American humanity go far beyond that. Republican congressmen have drafted a constitutional amendment that would permit foreign-born citizens to run for president.

Certainly, the move has its cynical aspect: Republicans want to open a passage to the Oval Office for Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Austrian-born governor of California. But it has also provoked enthusiasm from journalists and politicians, who hold that full access to the American dream is something the US owes to people everywhere.

George W. Bush himself occasionally addresses foreign audiences as if he were canvassing their support. In June, he made such an appeal to Turkish students at Galatasaray University in Istanbul. “Some people in Muslim cultures identify democracy with the worst of western popular culture and want no part of it,” Mr Bush said. “And I assure them, when I speak about the blessings of liberty, coarse videos and crass commercialism are not what I have in mind.”

Why does he bother? Because debate about America's role in the world has come to revolve around its legitimacy. In a new afterword to his book Power and Weakness, Robert Kagan, the historian of diplomacy, recognises, in the light of the Iraq war, that Europe in particular has a vital role to play in determining how the US asserts itself.

That role is not “soft power”, or any “expertise” that comes from Europe's imperial past. It is simply ratification or rejection by an interested party - the kind of checking and balancing that a parliament gives to an executive. “To address today's global threats,” Mr Kagan writes, “Americans will need the legitimacy that Europe can provide.”

In a hyperdemocratic age - when a rural Italian can watch a presidential press conference live on the internet and then complain to his elected representatives about it - it is part of the president's job description to appeal not just to foreign governments but to world opinion as well.

Mr Kerry outpolls Mr Bush in all but three or four countries (Indonesia, Poland, Nigeria and possibly Israel). This popularity among foreigners gives him a powerful campaigning argument. Do you want the ear of our allies, he can ask American voters, or do you not?

But it may be an illusory argument. Mr Kerry has thus far been only an American, as opposed to a world, politician. There is no guarantee he would have an easier time than Mr Bush with the dual role that the presidency now demands.

A President Kerry would no longer be able to play the domestic audience off against the international one.

Were he to follow through on his protectionist promises, he might run foul of international public opinion. Even Mr Kerry's attack on the way Mr Bush handled America's “Old European” allies, pleasing though it is to the global village, could come back to haunt him. Were France and Germany not to offer significant assistance to the Iraqi occupation, Mr Kerry's internationalism could appear in the light of a broken campaign promise, weakening him at home.

In broad terms, the old regime of international political authority is weakening in the face of globalisation, and no concrete political structures are yet in place to supplement or to supplant it. Such was the subtext when Charles Krauthammer, the most hawkish of neoconservative intellectuals, urged in a recent speech that the US pursue an assertive “democratic realism” abroad and his old comrade-in-arms, the philosopher Francis Fukuyama, took him to task.

Writing in the National Interest, Mr Fukuyama warned that Mr Krauthammer wanted a role for the US that exceeded that of the nation-state as it has existed since the Treaty of Westphalia - but that Mr Krauthammer was silent on how legitimacy is conferred in a post-Westphalian age. “If we had in fact been designated global custodian,” wrote Mr Fukuyama, “we would have no legitimacy problem, but we have unfortunately designated ourselves.”

Mr Fukuyama got the better of this argument. But the picture is a complicated one. Formally, the foreign engagement that Mr Bush has undertaken in Afghanistan is wholly legitimate under international law, while that in Iraq can claim a great deal of legitimacy from a United Nations Security Council resolution passed weeks after the invasion. The fact that no one seems to care about this legitimacy - that UN backing for the Iraq occupation feels insufficient to much of international opinion - ought to give us pause.

Multinational bodies, too, are seeing their legitimacy ebb. That is why peoples of the world are jockeying for a voice in picking the leader of the world's most powerful nation. In some small measure, they are getting it.

The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard