The paradoxes of Amercian democracy

As an election junkie I observed the American election campaign with a mixture of horror and bemusement. To most of us Europeans the USA is an enigma. In addition to a number of visits to Chicago, Washington and New York, I have had the chance to make two tours of the USA, one as a member of a House of Commons Select Committee and the other as the guest of the American government. One key thing I realised from these extended trips, which included meetings in Nebraska, Nevada and Iowa, is that the ?real? USA is the great agricultural heartland of the midwest rather than the two seaboards, but I still don?t claim to understand the nature of the beast.

It is a huge and young country composed almost entirely of immigrants and the descendants of immigrants and yet, with all the passion of the convert, it is perhaps the most fiercely nationalistic of all developed countries. It is a vast melting pot of all types and conditions of men and women and is manifestly not a "nation" in any meaningful definition of the word. Yet in it its declaration of allegiance its citizens affirm that they are "one nation under God". Therein lies one of many paradoxes: the need to make the statement implies that it is not otherwise apparent, just as countries that include the word ?democratic? in their name rarely are.

It is a country that harps on about the primacy of democracy and, at least until this election, had the lowest level of electoral participation in the developed world. It is also a country with by far the highest level of active religious affiliation and yet does not have a health or education system that embraces the poorer sections of its society.

My experience of the USA is one of generous and open hospitality to visitors, and yet the country?s fear of foreign countries leads it into gross abuses of its military strength. It is almost as if American citizens behave totally differently as individuals than they do collectively. Partly this is a consequence of yet another paradox: that despite the high proportion of first and second generation immigrants in the USA its citizens are very naive as to what goes on outside the country and are remarkably unaware of basic geography. My daughter is married to a Belgian and they and their family lived for four years in South Carolina. They were asked quite seriously whether they had driven there from Belgium. Only 20% of US citizens possess passports.

Wherever I work around the world, however difficult the circumstances, I always find American professionals and volunteers doing vital work, both in their embassies and on non- governmental projects. The Peace Corps - the American version of our Voluntary Service Overseas - is an excellent organisation with committed and sensitive volunteers. The polarisation of the past four years of the neo-conservatism of the Bush administration is at odds with much of this altruism and had begun to affect such work, but it has to be remembered that it was the perseverance and highly professional diplomacy of Chester Crocker, under Ronald Reagan?s presidency, that led to the first democratic elections in Namibia and broke the hold of white supremacy in southern Africa.

Finally, and most significantly, the USA is in military terms by far the most powerful country in the world and yet has little idea of what to do with its power. Under Ronald Reagan it invested billions of dollars in its Strategic Defence Initiative - nicknamed "star wars" - which aimed to provide a protective shield against incoming missiles. It was eventually accepted that this was both impractical and that, even if it could be made effective, it was dangerous in that it would encourage an enemy to increase the number of missiles stockpiled and, potentially, used so as to ensure that some at least pierced the shield. The Bush administration has revived the proposals, even though they have no conceivable use against terrorism.

For a supposed short term benefit, the USA has often armed and equipped authoritarian regimes quite cynically. It supported Sadam Hussain's Iraq regime in its war against Iran, and the Taliban led opposition to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan - in both instances it had to reverse its policy after the 9th September 2001attacks on the World Trade Centre. It is as if because it has a vast military arsenal it has got to use it, whether or not it is effective.

The exit poll surveys on polling day last Tuesday indicated that the electorate favoured Bush's blunt instrument approach, rather than grappling with Kerry's nuances demonstrating its ineffectiveness. More than any other factor, it was their attitudes to the war in Iraq, rather than their policies, which divided the two candidates. Their different styles epitomised the two Americas ? Bush folksy, isolationist, and confident that sheer force can prevail; and Kerry urbane, internationalist, stressing conciliation. The electors went for the tough guy.

What then should Britain's attitude, and, for that matter, that of Europe as whole, be towards post-election USA? First and foremost we need to distinguish between the American people and the American government and to maintain our existing friendships and encourage new ones. Towards the American administration we need to be true friends, prepared to be critical and forthright when necessary and supportive whenever possible. A strong Europe is a crucial counter balance to the USA and Britain has a key role to play in interpreting one to the other. Our geographic location, our linguistic heritage and our history give us a unique and important role in bridging the Atlantic. It certainly need not be as wide as Bush and Blair have made it in recent years.

4 November 2004