Nations Anxious, Apathetic, Sometimes Aghast at US Vote
WASHINGTON — American presidential elections are usually front-page news all over the world. From Amman to Amsterdam, citizens of other nations know that White House decisions can affect their own lives at a stroke - so they're often intensely interested in who the chief executive of the globe's sole remaining superpower will be.
This doesn't mean campaign '96 is stirring up more excitement in Israel than in Illinois. President Clinton's reelection is taken as a given in many other nations - dampening news media and citizen attention. The continuation tag line on one foreign press story about the US election may be indicative: "See YAWN, p.3."
But other nations are still concerned about what the next administration holds for issues they're concerned about, from the Middle East peace process to trade with Africa. Foreign policy may not be a large issue in the US campaign. But it certainly is outside the nation's borders, where those policies have direct consequences.
Viewed through a foreign lens, the US election looks like this:
Arabs and Jews see the US election through the prism of the US-sponsored Middle East peace process and how it is likely to progress or falter under new leadership.
But across the Arab world and Israel there is wide recognition that a surprise victory for Bob Dole is unlikely. Few are holding their breath until the outcome.
Still, among Arab commentators in particular there is a new twist to the region's conventional wisdom about the foreign policies of US political parties. Mr. Clinton's personal commitment to bringing peace to the Mideast, many say, make him the Arab favorite. In the past, Democratic candidates were sometimes judged more pro-Israel than their GOP counterparts. But the root of such support for Clinton is based on another widely held belief: that US presidents in their second term are unfettered by the powerful Jewish lobby, and can therefore apply pressure to Israel.
Throughout the region, the victory last spring of right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been seen to throw the peace process into a downward spiral. Clinton, despite the US role in pushing the peace process, has been slow to openly criticize Mr. Netanyahu's actions.
In Israel, the reaction to the election is similar to that in the US: muted. "Israelis are usually very alert before an election in the US, especially when it is close ... but at the moment the gap is very big," says Alon Liel, the director-general of Israel's Ministry of Economy and Planning. In addition, Israelis are too busy with their own problems to focus on foreign events. "The mood here is very intense," says Dr. Liel. "Half the public is depressed [with the stalled peace process], and half the public is euphoric."
When it comes to US politics, Canadians have a love-hate fascination that gives many of them a strange feeling of simultaneous attraction and repulsion.
Polls this summer revealed that 55 percent of Canadians are either "very" or "somewhat" interested in the US race. Canada's love-hate attitude towards the politics of its southern neighbor is a phenomenon well-known to Michael Adams, president of Environics Research Group Limited, a Canadian pollster.
"Most people I know view the American political process with a mixture of fear and loathing - and fascination. And a quiet exclamation: 'Thank God I'm a Canadian,' " he writes in a recently published essay about Canadians' views of the American political process.
Part of that thankfulness for Canada may be because Canadians' political leanings are ideologically far to the left of Americans, Mr. Adams says.
Canadians, for instance, would vote for Clinton over Dole by a margin of 51 percent to 9 percent, he reports.
In a country where democracy itself hangs in the balance when voters go to the polls at presidential elections, few Russians believe that very much is at stake in the US on Nov. 5, even fewer can tell much of a difference between Clinton and Dole, and hardly anybody cares. Russia is too wrapped up in its own drama for its citizens to pay much attention to foreign affairs.
With "Bill and Boris" such close friends, openly supporting each other personally as they forge a new relationship between their countries, it is not surprising to find the Kremlin rooting quietly for Clinton.
"We pay close attention to the process in America, and because of the partnership between Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin, a partnership that was extremely fruitful, we are Clinton fans," says Alexei Morgun, an official with the "Our Home is Russia" party.
And for many of the same reasons that Moscow likes Clinton, Moscow's enemies prefer Dole. Popular apathy is reflected in Russian press coverage of the election campaign, which has been spotty at best.
The fact that Britain itself is in the early throes of its own election campaign has muted interest in the US vote. All the main parties agree that Britain's links with the US are important, and that the question of who will occupy the White House for the next four years ranks high among London's foreign-policy interests. But at the ruling party's annual conference on Oct. 11, Prime Minister John Major barely mentioned the US in a speech to Conservative stalwarts.
The Labour Party leader Tony Blair, at his party's conference a week earlier, took a cue or two from America - but it was the America of yesteryear. Echoing Speaker Newt Gingrich's 1994 "Contract With America," Mr. Blair offered voters a 10-point covenant with the people
The US elections are being followed in Germany with "a great calm," as Peter Rudolf, research fellow at the Institute for Science and Politics, in Ebenhausen, puts it. Foreign governments generally prefer to see the reelection of the White House incumbent, and this is evidently the case this time in Germany.
The issue of who controls Congress, while not of much interest to the average citizen, is important to the foreign-policy community in Germany.
But for the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, issues like Iran and Cuba "could have been handled much differently," says Mr. Rudolf. As it was, Congress passed the Helms-Burton law, imposing sanctions on third-party trading partners with these rogue regimes, causing considerable friction between the US and its European allies.
The standard news agenda here is generally more internationally oriented than in the US. But on the whole, the German public's level of interest in the election seems to be largely mirroring that of Americans. (In a recent issue of the International Herald Tribune, readers were directed to the continuation inside the paper of a front-page election story with the words: "See YAWN, p. 3.")
Several themes current in American political discussion - immigration, tax reform, cutbacks in social programs - are also important in the German political discussion. But the apparent similarities can be deceptive: Even with a Christian Democratic government, described as "conservative," Germany has a welfare state - what Americans would consider socialist - which enjoys broad public support "People here are considering these issues from a fundamentally different basis," Rudolf says. "People talk about how to make cutbacks in the social-safety net, but no one is talking about 'ending welfare as we know it.' "
In Africa, policymakers have deep concerns about how debates in the US will affect international matters such as the restructuring and reform of the UN, the Middle East peace process, and the position of the International Monetary Fund/World Bank on debt rescheduling. In particular, African leaders and media have been keenly following Clinton's efforts to block the reelection of UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who is an African. Interest in the elections is arguably highest in South Africa, the continent's richest country. It has much more trade with the US than its neighbors, and the US has a high profile in foreign relations dating back to the role it played during the apartheid years.
Officially the government says it has good relations with both parties and does not want to be seen favoring one over the other. Officials say there are no campaign issues in which the South African government has a direct interest.
Democrats are seen as more receptive to aid for impoverished African countries, although in reality policy might not change much under a Republican government. "A major issue here, as well as in other African countries, is whether aid will be scaled down," says Antoinette Handley, director of studies at the South African Institute of International Affairs.
American voters may be tuning out of their own presidential election in record numbers, but the US election is closely watched in France, at least by the nation's diplomats and news media.
For at least a year into the run-up to the US vote, French commentators have had a two-word explanation for much of US foreign policy: "coup lectoral!"
Electoral considerations are routinely cited as the cause behind last month's US missile attacks on Iraq, this month's Mideast peace summit in Washington, and even US Secretary of State Warren Christopher's visit to Africa this week.
Until recently, French diplomats have deliberately downplayed differences with the White House to avoid embarrassing the US president. But as Clinton's lead over Dole held, policy differences have come back out into the open. Europeans will call for a dispute resolution panel of the World Trade Organization on Oct. 16 to take up complaints about the US Helms-Burton legislation on Cuba. "It may be that Clinton's solid campaign performance made Europeans realize that restraint is superfluous," says a US official, who asked not to be identified.
*This article was reported by Scott Peterson in Amman; Mark Clayton in Toronto; Peter Ford in Moscow; Alexander Macleod in London; Ruth Walker in Bonn; Judith Matloff in Johannesburg; and Gail Russell Chaddock in Paris.