Accessibility links

For Anti-Bush Europe, 2004 Elections Are Test for Trans-Atlantic Ties

Europe is watching the 2004 presidential campaign in the United States with an intensity unseen in recent history. Europeans are overwhelmingly opposed to the policies of Republican President Bush but know little about, or do not know what to expect from, Democratic candidate John Kerry.

As the U.S. presidential campaign comes down to the wire, many Europeans look wistfully across the Atlantic and wish that they, too, could vote in the contest. That is because at no time in the recent past has a U.S. presidential election stirred up so much emotion among Washington's traditional allies.

The Bush administration is thoroughly unpopular in Europe, with three out of four Europeans telling a recent trans-European poll conducted by the German Marshall Fund that they disapprove of current U.S. foreign policy.

That poll, released last month, found that European animosity toward the Bush administration stemmed mostly from the Iraq war but originated with other measures such as Washington's rejection of the Kyoto Treaty on the environment. Nearly every day, there is an editorial somewhere in Europe castigating the Bush administration for what Europeans call its "unilateralism", its willingness to act on its own without consulting its allies.

Andrew Neil, the publisher of the British newspapers "The Scotsman" and "Business Today", says the decisions a U.S. president makes affect Europeans as much as they do Americans.

"Europe needs the United States to lead it, but Europe also wants a say on how it is led, which is why a lot of Europeans would like to have a vote in this election," he said.

A recent survey conducted by ten newspapers across the world, including three in Europe, found that if Europeans did vote, they would overwhelmingly choose Mr. Kerry by a wide margin, even in Britain, Washington's closest ally.

The Guardian, a liberal British daily, urged its readers earlier this month to write to citizens of Clark County in Ohio in an effort to convince them to vote for Mr. Kerry. But the attempt to influence the election backfired, with even Democrats criticizing what some called foreign interference.

Europeans do not understand the complex way Americans choose a president, with the final result decided by an electoral college rather than by a one-man, one- vote system. Neither do they understand why President Bush remains popular among half of the American electorate.

Jeffrey Gedmin, an American who heads the Aspen Institute, a think tank in Berlin, says he has tried to tell Europeans that, though Mr. Bush's convictions may not fall within the European political mainstream, the president speaks the language of America's Heartland, and, most importantly, he has an understanding of America's vision of itself as a world power.

"There are a lot of people who look at the guy and say 'gee, he talks the way we do," he said. "He says what he means and he actually does what he says, O.K.?' And a lot of people are offended by that. Take the German foreign minister today, John Kerry today and George W. Bush today and a foreign policy issue like Iran. They all say exactly the same thing: we won't tolerate an Iran with nuclear weapons. The big difference is, and it scares some people, George W. Bush actually means it."

And that may be why Mr. Bush has become such a controversial figure in Europe. Christine Ockrent, a French television anchorwoman and author of a recently published book entitled "Bush-Kerry, the Two Americas", says that, despite their unfamiliarity with the U.S. electoral system and their failure to understand how the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 changed America, most Europeans still hope for a Bush defeat on November the 2.

"There is vast ignorance in Europe, and certainly in France, about the American political system as such, but it is true that the personality , also the circumstances, of Bush's presidency have polarized the issues to a great extent," she said.

Ms. Ockrent says most Europeans know little about Senator Kerry or even what he stands for. But she says that despite that, they prefer him to President Bush and think he would bring what she calls a change in atmospherics to the Trans-Atlantic relationship.

The Aspen Institute's Jeffrey Gedmin says those Europeans who have watched the presidential debates on television seem to like Mr. Kerry's style.

"It's important on the one hand, and it's completely superficial on the other," he said. "They like John Kerry because he speaks French, he was the son of a diplomat, he lived in Europe as a young man, and he says the word 'multilateral' ten times a day".

But British publisher Andrew Neil says that Europeans do not seem to realize that Mr. Kerry will always have more in common with President Bush, despite their differences, than he will with French President Jacques Chirac or German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, the main opponents of the Iraq War.

"This is not Kerry-Bush. This is a far deeper systemic difference," he said. "America believes in using military power because it's got it. And America's the hyper-power, and it feels under threat. Europe has no military power today. It's against use of power. It would rather work through international institutions and treaties and have soft power."

And Mr. Neil warns that, whereas Europe is intensely secular, the United States is a highly religious country. He sees that as a crucial sign that the trans-Atlantic gap will get wider, no matter who wins the U.S. presidential election.

"For good or bad, Europe and America are going their separate ways. And Mr. Kerry, if he becomes president, will slow that down. If Mr. Bush becomes president again, he'll speed it up," he said.

One thing the overwhelming majority of European analysts agree on is that neither President Bush nor Mr. Kerry will be able to count on European support for a broader multi-national coalition in Iraq to relieve the strain on U.S. forces there.