mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

mark


World to Americans

Foreigners say over and over that it’s George W. Bush they dislike,
not all Americans. But what if Americans give Mr. Bush a second term
as president on November 2? Will foreigners still say it’s the man in
the White House who is the problem, not the voters who put him there?

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The U.S. presidential election is widely seen as too close to call,
but one thing is clear: if the rest of the world could vote, Bush
would lose in a landslide.

The most recent evidence came last week, when major newspapers in ten
countries released the results of a series of coordinated opinion
polls. Thousands of people in Japan, Great Britain, Israel, Mexico,
Spain, Russia, South Korea, France, Canada, and Australia were asked
their views about Bush, challenger John Kerry, the war in Iraq and the
global role of the United States. By a 2-1 margin, foreigners opposed
a second term for Bush. Only in two countries, Israel and Russia, did
a majority of respondents favor Bush over Kerry.

Most foreign governments seem to share their citizens’ desire for
Bush’s defeat, even if diplomatic constraints keep them from saying so
publicly. Even off the record, government officials will not tell you
this, a spokesman for a major European nation told me in June, and I
am not telling you this now. But his mischievous smile left little
doubt about his true feelings.

What is striking is how foreign governments and ordinary citizens
alike invariably emphasize that their antipathy towards Bush does not
extend to America, or Americans, at large.

We like Americans, we don’t like Bush, ran the headline in The
Guardian newspaper of Great Britain. Bush Is The Problem explained
the headline in South Korea’s Joong Ang Ilbo newspaper.

The fact that foreigners make this distinction may comfort Americans,
but it shouldn’t be taken for granted. After all, in a democracy—and
don’t most Americans think we have the greatest democracy in the
world?—the people are responsible for the government they elect.

Of course, one can argue that Americans didn’t really elect Bush the
first time. Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000 by half a million
votes, but Bush ended up as president with help from his brother, the
governor of Florida, and a Republican-dominated Supreme Court.

But whatever the absurdities of the Electoral College that governs
U.S. presidential elections, the rules are the rules, everyone knows
them and each side has had plenty of time to get ready for this year’s
showdown.

If Bush does win on November 2, Americans will in effect be saying to
the world that we endorse his bellicose, high-handed, unilateralist
approach to international affairs. In that event, why should
foreigners keep drawing a distinction between an American president
they deplore and the American population that gave him four more years
in power?

The fact is, Americans have long benefited from the world’s forgiving
attitude of not blaming us for our government’s actions. It has been a
recurring theme throughout the twenty years that I have traveled
abroad as a journalist, and I heard it repeatedly in 2001, when I
spent six months before and after the September 11th attacks visiting
fifteen countries in Europe, Africa, Asia and Central America.

I was researching a book about why the United States fascinates and
infuriates the world. As I interviewed people from all walks of life,
I heard them differentiate again and again between America the
country—its people, its ideals, its wealth, technology and popular
culture—all of which they admired, and the American government, which
often they did not.

A few days after the September 11th attacks, I interviewed Ana, a
middle-aged intellectual in Barcelona. She told me, I love the music
of Motown and the movies of Hollywood. After all these years, I feel
that your culture is now our culture too. But we do wish our American
friends would think more about their government, because we have to
live with America’s policies and that is often difficult, especially
when war is in the air.

Most Americans don’t realize it, but when we elect our president, we
are also electing the de facto president of the world. The U.S.
government shapes basic realities for people all over the planet: will
there be war? Will interest rates rise or fall? Will universal threats
like global climate change be combated or ignored?

Because the United States exercises such decisive influence over the
lives of everyone else on this planet, some foreign opinion leaders
have begun suggesting that non-Americans should also be able to vote
for who runs the United States.

Abdel Monem Said Aly is a columnist for Al-Ahram, Egypt’s leading
daily newspaper. When I interviewed him in Cairo, he said, I have
wanted to write an opinion article for the New York Times urging that
American elections be opened to foreigners, because what the American
government decides about economic policy, military action and cultural
mores affects me and all other people around the world.

Said Aly’s idea makes a certain sense, but it won’t happen anytime
soon. For the time being, foreigners will remain at the mercy of the
U.S. electorate. Today, people the world over say they like Americans
despite our government. But will they still love us tomorrow, if we
return that government to power on November 2?

If Americans give Bush another four years as president, the popular
global backlash could be intense, including not just rhetorical
denunciations of American stupidity but perhaps boycotts of American
products and worse. And for the first time, mass overseas anger may be
directed not only towards Bush but also towards the ordinary Americans
who put him back in office for another four years.

In that unhappy event, we Americans will have no one to blame but
ourselves.

On the other hand, if Americans vote Bush out on November 2, it will
signal the world that its affection for us is both recognized and
reciprocated. And that—to borrow a line from a movie that has made
American culture so beloved around the world—could be the start of a
beautiful friendship.

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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.

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