I was watching yet another webinar from yet another think tank discussing European discontents with the U.S. There was predictable elation at Joe Biden’s arrival in the Oval Office, but dissatisfaction with almost everything American – infrastructure, health care, political system, and, of course, inadequate subservience to exalted European opinions.
Nevertheless, participants admitted that America’s cousins across the pond just can’t help themselves. Observed Oxford University historian Timothy Garton Ash:
"One of the few things that all Europeans have in common is the United States. That is to say, you can have a conversation in the smallest bar in the smallest village in Ruthenia or wherever it may be about US politics and people will know the basics. They know much more about the US than they know about each other’s countries."
To hear Europeans tell it, they are fascinated by their abuser’s almost endless peculiarities. Hypocrisy and sanctimony long have suffused the continent’s attitudes toward America: Euroleaders want the US to run the world and especially to defend them, but only in the way and to the degree that they direct. Washington officials certainly shouldn’t harbor any deviant thoughts about making European policy for Americans’ benefit!
Moreover, US officials aren’t supposed to get cross about the fact that none of the Europeans does much to defend themselves because, of course, in the Europeans’ refined opinion that is America’s job. Why waste precious funds that could go to a generous welfare state when US support makes maintenance of a serious military unnecessary, and hence a wasteful luxury? Americans should not ungenerously complain about something that Europeans understand to be an immutable fact of history.
These self-serving European leaders are profoundly annoying, but they are not unique in their fixation. Governing elites around the world stayed up on November 3rd to see who they would be dealing with as America’s next president. And not everyone longed for a Biden revival. Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, and India’s Narendra Modi likely spent the entire night locked in prayer urging success for their slavish friend, Donald Trump, who gave them so much after receiving so little in return. A gaggle of Chinese leaders, starting with Xi Jinping, probably did the same, hoping for continued political chaos and division in America.
However, Ash’s observation runs deeper. Normal folks, those with no pretense of being masters of the universe, also are fascinated by American politics. There is little doubt that people in cities, towns, and hamlets in country after country watched both the election campaign and poll result with a mix of fascination and horror. For them, US politics is like the proverbial car wreck: you can’t take your eyes off of it.
There are a number of reasons for this phenomenon. America’s contest is the world’s largest unified national vote. Democratic India has more voters, but in that system the prime minister and president emerge from parliament, which is made up of hundreds of individual constituencies. Indonesia, Russia, Brazil, and Nigeria all have sizable populations and choose their presidents in ways similar to the US, but none of those races occur in countries with the same mix of English dominance, media saturation, political competitiveness, and easy access.
Nevertheless, there is one additional, and far more important, reason for the world’s fascination with US politics. Washington dominates the globe. Only America asserts the right, possesses the ability, and demonstrates the willingness to intervene in every other nation for any reason at any time. Consider which countries today are most directly and seriously impacted by decisions in Washington: almost every European nation, Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Afghanistan and its neighbors, India, Pakistan, China, Burma, South and North Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Philippines, Australia, Canada, Mexico, Venezuela, Haiti, Colombia, Cuba, Nigeria, Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Sudan, South Sudan, Mali, Somalia, and Burkina Faso. Almost every other country is affected to some degree by events in America. In many of these cases the US has greater influence than even their closest neighbors.
This is not healthy. For other nations or America.
Irrespective of how well-intentioned most Americans are, Uncle Sam is no angel wandering the globe on an eleemosynary pilgrimage. US officials are constantly seeking commercial and geopolitical advantage. That is no different than the actions of other governments, but that is the point. The claim of American exceptionalism and unique saintly behavior is more than a little tattered when intentions are honestly assessed and results are fairly judged.
There is no need to rehash the depredations that accompanied the early Americans as they overspread the North American continent and extended their control overseas, particularly to the Philippines. Principle and prudence were profoundly lacking in multiple interventions in Latin America as well as entry into World War I. The latter was one of the most disastrous misadventures in history, contributing to an unbalanced settlement which loosed communism, fascism, and Nazism upon the world.
After World War II the US successfully contained the Soviet Union, though with great "collateral damage," as the saying goes. Washington’s subsequent wild embrace of its perceived position as the "unipower" and "essential nation" has been almost uniquely disastrous. American policymakers used the nation’s financial power to starve Iraqis, Iranians, Venezuelans, North Koreans, and Syrians in an attempt to make their leaders yield weapons and power, with little success. US support for foolish, unnecessary, and brutal conflicts in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen visited death and destruction upon innocent and guilty alike. Threats of war with Iran and North Korea created fear of far worse conflicts to come.
No wonder people around the world pay rapt attention to political follies in America.
Americans should flip the perspective. Imagine spending months watching Chinese presidential candidates hopscotch across that vast country clashing publicly over how vigorously to contain the US for its intrusions in Asia-Pacific waters and how harshly to punish Americans who sought to interfere with China’s internal affairs.
Or viewed Russian presidential candidates dropping into Vladivostok to hold press conferences pledging to expand the Far East fleet to contain America’s Pacific ambitions. Or saw Indian political hopefuls address the Hindu faithful about the need to achieve Indian dominance over navigation and trade in the Indian Ocean. Or listened to Nigerian presidential aspirants travel from the Christian south to the Muslim north with a unifying message of ending reliance on foreign and especially American economic, political, and military support.
Imagine the helpless feeling. The fearful anticipation. The angry frustration. The Chinese – or Russians, Indians, and Nigerians – will be voting but the US will be affected too. Perhaps dramatically so, with economic sanctions, commercial penalties, political pressure, and even military attack and invasion possible. All of which depends upon an always bizarre and often unbalanced campaign among competing candidates of dubious ability and philosophy, most of whom can barely handle their own affairs, let alone those of the nation or world.
Ash was right. As I’ve traveled the world I have been oft questioned about American politics. Everyone seemed fascinated. Almost as many were appalled. Many were worried. A sizable share was despondent, fearful, or distressed. America’s electoral process was the geopolitical wreck from which they simply could not avert their eyes.
Consider America’s situation today. The US treasury is broke. The American electorate is divided. The Washington foreign policy elite is reckless. The federal government is dangerous. All of these are good reasons to shift away from America’s perpetually interventionist foreign policy and over-deployed military.
Doing so would have another huge benefit: allowing the rest of the world to stop fixating on America’s elections. Finally, "at the smallest bar in the smallest village in Ruthenia or wherever it may be" people wouldn’t be talking about US politics. And they would know more about events in neighboring countries than in America.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire. Follow him on Twitter.