The U.S. ship of state went aground off Florida two weeks ago. Now it struggles mightily to extricate itself. Even though no structural damage was done and nobody was injured, the passengers and their friends abroad know this was deeply disturbing for the ship's reputation.
American influence in the world rests not only on our military and economic power, but importantly on the stability of our electoral system. This is particularly so in presidential elections. and the country has rightly prided itself on managing an orderly transfer of presidential power for over two hundred years, except for the Civil War period.
No matter whether Al Gore or George Bush is declared the winner and becomes president in January, American politics will be changed and U.S. international relations will suffer from the damage done this month.
Three areas of foreign relations are affected:
* Political-security. This area may see the most serious erosion of American influence. The London Economist, in its November 21 issue, state that many of the world's smoldering crises "cry out for the engaged attention of an American president." But this influential magazine fears that "the next president, whoever he may be, will be thinking about how on earth to bolster his legitimacy and keep control in his own country."
* Economic-financial. Financial markets abhor political uncertainty, and the slide in U.S. stock prices after November 7 reflected investor nervousness. Unless the electoral impasse is resolved quickly, we could face the danger that foreign investors will pull their investments out of U.S. markets.
* Ideological-moral. American foreign policy during the 1990s maintained heavy emphasis on promoting human rights and democracy around the world, causing some leaders abroad to criticize the United States for lecturing them to adopt the U.S. way of doing things. Friends in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia are now questioning whether Washington has the moral authority to tell them how to organize their institutions. Fidel Castro mischievously offers to send "observers" to Florida to oversee the vote count.
Among the pressing international issues facing the new president, consider the situations in Bosnia and Kosovo. The United States has about 11,000 peace-enforcing troops there as part of a UN-NATO operation to keep peace in the Balkans. In 1995 and again in 1999, American political pressure, backed up with air power, was required to stop Serb-inspired ethnic cleansing. But there is no resolution of dangerous political divisions in either Bosnia or Kosovo.
If the new administration focuses its attention, as the Economist fears, on events at home instead of troubles abroad, Bosnia and Kosovo will be ripe for the withdrawal of U.S. ground troops. The Senate's Republican leaders signaled their unhappiness earlier this year with the status and the morale of American troops in Kosovo.
If political divisions within the United States cause friendly Persian Gulf countries to question the U.S. pledge to protect their countries against new threats from Iraq, the Arab leaders will find ways to accommodate Sadam Hussein's demands. That would produce a crisis in world oil markets and perhaps lead to 1973-type gas shortages for American motorists.
Currently the world's most dangerous crisis centers in Palestine where Israel and the Palestine Liberation Authority (PLA) are engaged in what resembles open warfare. Until two months ago, the United States was viewed by both sides as the only country capable of mediating between Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
Following the breakdown of the Oslo peace process, PLA leader Yasser Arafat insists that additional countries, especially Arab states, join the talks. He thinks Washington has given too much support to the Israeli side and has almost total support from the Arab states and many of the world's Muslim countries, including Malaysia, Pakistan, and Indonesia.
If the U.S. commitment to help Israel defend itself against hostile neighbors should ever be called into question because of political divisions in the United States, another major war could result in the Middle East, as in 1973, and jeopardize the world's Persian Gulf oil supplies.
An optimistic scenario says that none of these things will occur, that the United States will shortly decide on a new president who will take office January 20. Then American foreign policy will continue largely as before, they predict, regardless of who enters the White House.
I don't share that view because things could get worse, both here and abroad, if the final outcome of voting in Florida, and elsewhere, causes half the country to believe that the result was politically tainted.
What makes this presidential election almost unique in America's history is that the electorate not only divided evenly on the presidential race, it also split down the middle in deciding the composition of the new Senate and House of Representatives.
As a result, there will likely to be less bipartisanship in foreign policy than during the past six years. With razor-thin margins held by Republicans in the House and Senate, there is no assurance that even if George Bush becomes president, Congress would follow the president's lead on major foreign policy issues. What we are seeing, I believe, is a gradual diminution of presidential power and influence as Congress asserts its own authority in foreign policy. There are important segments inof both Republican and Democratic parties that simply don't think the United States should be involved so heavily abroad because this drains financial resources that could be used for pressing social and economic needs at home.
Presidential candidates Pat Buchanan on the right, and Ralph Nader on the left, will not vanish from the political scene in 2001 and may become magnets for an increased neoisolationist vote in 2004. Organized labor, on the left, opposes free trade with China, Mexico and others because, they say, it costs U.S. workers high paying jobs. Many conservatives think the United States is squandering military resources by having troops deployed around the world engaged in dubious peacekeeping tasks.
In sum, we are heading into a period of uncertainty about America's worldwide leadership role. When friends and foes realize that the United States is not the solid rock of political stability they had come to expect, unpleasant things may occur in East Asia, the Balkans, the Persian Gulf, and Palestine.
No longer will the United States be at ease in lecturing the world about the superiority of its institutions. Following the November election, we are seen abroad as possessing a normal political system, exhibiting many of the flaws that characterize other democratic societies.
File last modified on Tuesday, 17-AUG-2004 09:30 PM EST