The publicity that John Kerry gained from the Democratic National Convention has made him only slightly less of an international man of mystery. Europeans remain uncertain as to how his policies would differ from those of the Bush administration. As in America, ignorance of Kerry’s positions on important issues stems partly from the fact that he has tried to be many things to many men—a perfectly understandable strategy, although one that will be difficult for him to sustain.
Of course, just as for many Americans, this uncertainty about the candidates’ differences does not stop Europeans from adopting strongly-held opinions about who deserves to win. This is not unprecedented. For example, Europeans had trouble taking Ronald Reagan as a serious contender for the White House, even the second time around. But it is remarkable the extent to which not only European pundits and chatterers but also certain politicians have rushed to endorse Kerry, as if Bush’s candidacy were simply not worth considering.
Many (but not all) Europeans—like many Americans—have harbored doubts about George Bush as president from the word go, even before his decisive reactions to the murderous attacks on Washington and New York in 2001, and well before the divisions between Europe and America over the war in Iraq. So these Europeans are less interested in scrutinizing than in supporting any potential replacement for Bush, especially one who has promised to try to regain respect for America among Europeans. Like some Americans, these Europeans have always been frightened by Bush’s unhidden religious convictions and by his willingness to talk about good and evil. Sensitivity to these elements of Bush’s character is so high that anything Bush says, no matter how down-to-earth and rational, is seen in the light of this damning tendency to make judgements based on consideration of human good and evil (has this not been banished from civilized politics?), and it is frequently quite erroneously concluded that Bush’s religious convictions directly dictate his policies, in spite of his patient and succinct explanations to the contrary (e.g. in a Paris Match interview last May).
However, the extent to which this anybody-but-Bush syndrome thrives in Europe should not be exaggerated. It is not universal, and Bush can count more statesmen than Tony Blair as friends and allies in Europe. Nor should the older, more generic, less Bush-specific anti-American sentiments of Europeans—though these are strong and durable—be seen as unqualified and unchanging. Just as there are pessimistic, “European”-minded people in America, there are optimistic, “American”-minded people in Europe. Half of the twenty-five governments in the enlarged European Union have been part of the Coalition for Iraqi Freedom. President Chirac of France, who has recently been the source of many anti-American initiatives, is being stalked in his own party by an ambitious young rival for the presidency, Nicolas Sarkozy, who in interviews has been accused of having a soft spot for America. Chirac has also been losing ground in EU politics, where he has failed to get his candidates into high office, and where the French notion of constructing Europe as a “counterweight” or “adversary” to America is rejected as “stupid” by the incoming EU President (the Prime Minister of Portugal, José Manuel Barroso, who has lived and worked in the United States).
It is true that a Kerry victory might help get certain European governments—notably France and Germany—out of the hole they have dug themselves into by leading opposition to American policies in Iraq. (They were not, as they often claim, just offering advice to a friend; they were arrogantly insisting that their friend take that advice.) This helps explain the extent to which these countries are hoping that Bush will lose. But this could work the other way around, too: the re-election of Bush, by reaffirming America’s commitment to the policies it has adopted since September 2001, and thus its will to win the war with Islamofascism, could help change the policies and the personnel of these European governments. The Kerry alternative, indulging Europeans’ anti-Americanism by focusing on some of America’s many faults and mistakes, would be neither an effective nor a healthy way to encourage European-American unity.
That is not the only way in which Bush could prove to be a better peace-with-Europe candidate than Kerry. As some Europeans have remarked, a President Kerry might well exacerbate European-American divisions, because of his more protectionist economics, and because he has raised Americans’ expectations that Europe should contribute more to the war. A recent newspaper editorial in Vienna (in Die Presse) even warned that Europeans should be careful what they wish for: confronted by a President Kerry, Europe could no longer “turn up its nose at the coarse Texan George Bush and duck its responsibilities in international crises.” That is probably going too far; it is more likely that Europeans who wanted to would continue to find it possible just to say no to a President Kerry, whatever inducements and face-saving devices he was able to offer them.
Among Europeans, especially since the Democratic Convention, there has been some appreciation that if Kerry were to become President, though America’s domestic policies would change, its international policies might not. It now seems that Kerry’s policies on Iraq—and perhaps even in the wider war—might turn out to be no less muscular than Bush’s. (In the 1960s Bill Rood, when he was teased about his Democratic Party loyalty, used to wisecrack: “well, they get us into all the wars, don’t they?”) In any case, whoever is President—as Bill Clinton found—Europeans do not always share America’s interests or views. Europeans are generally more reluctant to admit that military means can be successfully used for political ends, and not many Europeans share Americans’ views about the rights and wrongs of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the view that liberal democratic reform in Arab countries is a feasible (even if desirable) remedy for that conflict and for terrorism more generally.
European commentators have recognized that such divisions between America and Europe will probably persist whoever wins the presidential election. More than five months ago, The Economist commented that “Mr Kerry might explain American views more tactfully than Mr Bush. He might even do it in French. But transatlantic tensions would endure.” Americans should become more aware of this fact, and should not assume that electing Kerry would be a very effective way of easing tensions with Europe. Moreover, as we have seen, if they want to persuade more Europeans and their governments to support American foreign policy—insofar as such persuasion is possible—they should ask themselves whether a re-elected President Bush might be better placed to do that than a new President Kerry.
John Zvesper is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs. He is an American author residing in Europe.