NEW YORK — Spain's rebuff of the ruling Popular Party on Sunday was a slap in the face to the Bush administration, and a potential setback for US plans in Iraq and the fight against terror.
The upset is a wake-up call to US policymakers that democratic influences on global politics are here to stay and can affect - even thwart - US aims.
To remain at the helm of international affairs, the US will have to adapt its leadership style accordingly, recognizing that foreign peoples are increasingly steering their nations' foreign policies.
The Spanish turnabout is the latest example of a political shift caused by the spread of democracy. Before the Iraq war, voters and representatives in Turkey, Germany, and elsewhere, publicly repudiated their leaders' efforts to accommodate American designs for Iraq.
In the past 50 years, the number of people living under democratic rule has more than doubled. Having grown accustomed to demo- cratic norms of free speech, deliberation, and the need for restraints on power, citizens of democracies bring new standards to evaluating the conduct of international affairs.
The period when foreign policy was viewed as the sacred purview of heads of states, above and immune to politics, is past. Likewise, the era of unchallenged superpower dominance over smaller countries and subservient populations has given way to skeptical scrutiny of big powers' every moves.
Democratic populations are demanding to be heard on matters of international relations. They're ready to retaliate when either local leaders - or foreign superpowers - turn a deaf ear.
While some may dismiss the Spanish vote as cowering in the face of Al Qaeda, even the Bush administration has acknowledged that the Spanish have not gone wobbly on terror. Rather, the Spanish public's reversal was fueled by a sense it had been misled by a government that was allowing politics to interfere with investigation of the terror attack.
Up until last Thursday's train bombings, Spanish voters had seemed willing to overlook outgoing Prime Minister José María Aznar's highly unpopular support for the Iraq war. But when his government appeared to hide information about Al Qaeda's role in the attacks, something snapped.
Incoming Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has now vowed to pull Spain's troops out of Iraq, rejecting a US-led mission he describes as predicated on distortions.
Lately, democratic tides seem to work routinely against US foreign policy. In the fall of 2002, after decades of encouraging Turkish democracy, the US was left stranded by a Turkish Parliament that - spurning billions of dollars in aid - put domestic political opposition to the Iraq war above Washington's demand for military basing rights. German democracy likewise played against President Bush, allowing Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to ride to reelection on a wave of anti-war sentiment. Similar dynamics were at play in Mexico and Chile, where popular resistance to the war trumped fealty to the superpower.
Democracy's influence on international relations will only increase as liberalism spreads and wealthier, better-educated peoples become more effective, aggressive advocates for their views.
Ironically, the US seems to be tripping over a tangle of constraints on its own superpower prerogatives because of the very democracy it seeded across the globe. In the face of this transformation, Bush's failure to win international popular support for priorities like the war on terror and the attack on Iraq is more than botched diplomacy. It's a failure to grasp what it takes to succeed as a global leader now.
As the Spanish backlash illustrates, alliances that rely solely on individual leaders and parties are frighteningly vulnerable, and are no substitute for acceptance of shared values and priorities across a society - something the Bush administration as failed to do virtually anywhere.
Instead of trying to circumvent or override the role of democratic forces, the US should change its global leadership style to harness this powerful trend. Global leadership today is less like ruling a family or a classroom - where an anointed head enjoys largely unquestioned authority - and more like leading a democratic country where voters can oust their ruler at will. Accordingly, the US must remake itself as the global leader of choice - one that does not try to insist on the world's allegiance, but rather earns it.
US leaders should apply some of the tricks they've honed in domestic politics. Following House Speaker Tip O'Neill's adage that "all politics is local," the US must pay far more attention to crafting arguments tailored to specific audiences around the world. Rather than trying to impose its views by fiat, it should engage in retail diplomacy, using its network of diplomats to argue the American case through individualized appeals that go well beyond State Department talking points.
The fight for global popular support must begin long before key UN votes or troop deployments. US leaders must cultivate key constituencies abroad the way they court swing voters back home - over time, with a personal touch, and through initiatives aimed at sweet and sore spots.
President Kennedy's appeal to the beleaguered people of Berlin won the US decades of loyalty; President Clinton's visit to Africa built lasting goodwill. But Mr. Bush's highly scripted, heavily guarded hopscotch foreign tours seem to have the opposite effect.
Being a superpower amid restive democracies takes more work than barking orders to a subservient global population. But as the world's most robust democracy, the US is well-equipped to build a global constituency. Its broad economic and military ties, unparalleled web of diplomatic posts, and unmatched cultural influence - the global equivalent of charisma - make it, by far, the strongest candidate for global leadership. Rather than denying or suppressing democratic influences, the US should get out and start campaigning.
• Suzanne Nossel, a former senior adviser at the US Mission to the UN under President Clinton, works for a New York media company.