Quentin Peel: Sentenced to four more years

By Quentin Peel

Published: November 4 2004

George W. Bush's victory over John Kerry is not the result the world wanted. The Democratic challenger was much the most popular US presidential candidate in nearly every country bar the US. But foreigners do not have votes. For a majority of American voters, the incumbent president was the man who made them feel safer in a world threatened by global terrorism after the events of September 11 2001.

With some obvious exceptions, notably Israel and Russia, most other nations feel the opposite: that with Mr Bush as US president, the world is a more dangerous place. In Europe and Asia, Africa and Latin America, they believe the US-led war in Iraq has further destabilised the volatile Middle East. They see their economies threatened by the resulting rise in energy prices. They fear that the United Nations, overwhelmingly trusted as the best available institution for peacekeeping and conflict-resolution, has been undermined by America's unilateralism. They mistrust the US inclination to pre-emptive military action.

Such views were apparently not shared by a majority of US voters when they went to the polls on Tuesday, although the country remains deeply divided. Mr Bush and his team will see that as a vindication of their muscular prosecution of the so-called "war on terror", lumping it together with the invasion of Iraq. The president's absolute self-belief, and his dedication to the fight of "good" against "evil", motivated a solid constituency of conservatives and religious evangelists in his support.

Mr Bush's victory presents a great dilemma for the outside world, including many of America's traditional allies. The Bush administration's ideological unilateralism has split Europe and widened the transatlantic divide. It was not just the ill-judged invasion of Iraq but also the underlying conviction that "coalitions of the willing" were to be preferred to the Nato alliance. Mr Bush and his neo-conservative advisers seem hell-bent on reworking the international order that has kept the peace more or less successfully since the second world war.

Many of the European nations that have contributed to the "coalition forces" in Iraq have done so because they feel they must stick close to the superpower come what may, and not out of conviction that its policies are right. Other friendly countries, such as Turkey and India, were appalled at the invasion. "It is very sad. They wanted an international coalition against Iraq, and they ended up by getting virtually an international alliance against America," says Jaswant Singh, India's former foreign minister. "I do hope they have learnt an extremely costly but very necessary lesson."

There was no sign of that from Mr Bush on the campaign trail. Yet the danger of a descent into chaos in Iraq will greatly raise the pressure for dissenters, such as France and Germany, to get involved. Both have repeatedly rejected the idea of sending soldiers there but neither wants to see a failed state emerge. Whatever they may think in Washington, neither Paris nor Berlin wants to see the US humiliated. They need to work out a new modus vivendi.

Iran follows hard on Iraq's heels as a potential source of friction between Mr Bush and his allies. The European Union (including members of the Iraqi coalition, such as the UK and Italy), Russia and India all believe that a policy of carrot and stick is needed to persuade Tehran to abandon its nuclear ambitions. They recognise that the country has genuine security concerns in a region where both Israel and Pakistan already have nuclear weapons, while neighbouring Iraq and Afghanistan are profoundly unstable. They fear that a powerful lobby of hawks in Washington might persuade the re-elected president to launch missile strikes against presumed nuclear facilities in Iran, ending any hopes of peaceful reconciliation.

There are hopes, not least in London, that a Bush-2 administration will be altogether more heedful of international concerns, just as the second term of Ronald Reagan produced a more sensitive foreign policy. Yet the opposite could well be true. Mr Bush's electoral success was gained on an unashamedly hawkish policy platform. Colin Powell, his most moderate adviser, seems certain to quit as secretary of state at the end of the year. His successor is unlikely to be so sensitive to international alarm.

The more positive view is that two perceptions may finally percolate through to the White House. One is that dividing America into fiercely partisan camps may help re-election but it will not help in the history books. The other is that Iraq will never be stabilised without a far broader coalition, to give any future regime the legitimacy US occupation forces so clearly fail to provide.

A triumphant Mr Bush may not be inclined to hear such messages. But there is another view gaining credence in an increasingly despairing international community: that only after another four years of muddle and mistakes by an ideologically driven administration will enough people realise that even the sole superpower cannot remain deaf to its allies forever. Only then will the lesson be learnt. It may be a very expensive price to pay.