As President Bush and John Kerry slug it out on the campaign trail in the final days before the election, Kerry has emerged as the clear leader in perhaps the most important vote that doesn't count: If the rest of the world had a voice, the Massachusetts Democrat would win in a landslide.
Bush’s deep unpopularity internationally, especially in Europe, has ensured that this election is the most closely followed in recent memory.
And it’s no secret on which side the hypothetical foreign vote is falling.
One poll released last month, described as the largest sampling of world opinion on the contest, found a majority of people from 30 of 35 countries preferred Kerry. The survey, of 34,330 people, was conducted by the University of Maryland this summer.
Overall, nearly half of those polled supported Kerry, with 20 percent backing Bush and a third expressing no preference. Bush did come out ahead in Nigeria, the Philippines and Poland, while India and Thailand were evenly divided. Most of those surveyed in countries traditionally allied with the United States supported Kerry — including here in Britain, where 47 percent backed Kerry and 16 percent Bush.
On Friday, 10 leading newspapers published the results of a collaborative polling exercise and found Kerry was preferred in eight of 10 countries. Overall, Kerry was preferred by a margin of 2-to-1 in the exercise, initiated by the Quebec-based La Presse. A total of 9,675 people were surveyed by the 10 newspapers, which are mostly liberal.
The project found that Kerry was backed in Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Japan, Mexico, South Korea and Spain.
Bush, however, was preferred in two countries: Israel and, by a much narrower margin, Russia. But opinion from Russia has been mixed, with an earlier poll by independent Radio Moskviy having found that 70 percent of its listeners backed Kerry and only 30 percent the president.
The world community was skeptical about Bush’s Texas swagger when he entered office in 2000. That skepticism was compounded by the administration's withdrawal from the Kyoto climate accord, the comprehensive test ban treaty and the international criminal court.
Although the impression that Washington shrugged off international sympathy following the Sept. 11 attacks sat badly in foreign capitals, it was the Iraq war that transformed international unease over Bush into outright hostility among the populations.
“The underlying dynamics, I think, are fairly clear: It’s all related to the war in Iraq and the coverage of it,” Mark Joyce, head of the Transatlantic Program at the London-based Royal United Services Institute, said.
“The international reception [to Bush’s election] was fairly hostile and so events since then tended to harden that impression that, in my view, was already there,” Joyce said.
Kerry as the ‘anti-Bush’
Sen. Kerry may enjoy broad global support, but few people outside the United States know much about his policies.
To many in Europe, at least, Kerry’s worldliness strikes a chord. The son of a foreign service officer, his Swiss boarding school education and fluency in French are impressive. His wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, was born in Africaand speaks several languages. On the campaign trail and in the debates, at least, he has spoken in multilateral tones, stressing the need for strong alliances.
“He is seen as the anti-Bush, but nobody knew who he was” before the recent debates, said Marcel van Herpen, director of The Cicero Foundation, described as a “pro-EU, pro-Atlantic” think tank.
“In fact, I don’t think that there will be a big difference in the politics afterwards” if Kerry wins, van Herpen said in a telephone interview from Paris. “I think maybe it will be more in the details and in the presentation.”
Kerry might not share Bush's "with us or against us" rhetoric, but Joyce cautioned against expectations of a sea change in U.S. foreign policy.
“Anybody who’s expecting a drastic difference is likely going to be in for a disappointment because Kerry, like Bush, will probably slot into this well-established tradition of American presidencies of consulting with their allies when they can or proceeding alone when necessary,” he said.
The world’s election
Many commentators say that because U.S. foreign policy affects everyone on the planet, world citizens should have a say in who wins the White House.
Jonathan Freedland, a columnist and former U.S. correspondent for the left-leaning British newspaper The Guardian, wrote recently about being summarily dismissed by Bob Dole while covering the Kansas Republican’s failed White House bid in 1996. “No votes in Liverpool,” Dole said curtly upon hearing the Briton’s accent. He then took a question from an American reporter.
But, Freedland argued, that is no longer a sufficient response. “For who could honestly describe the 2004 contest of George Bush and John Kerry as a domestic affair? … Shouldn’t the men who want to be president win the support of Liverpool and Leipzig as well as Louisville and Lexington?”
On Tuesday, The Guardian initiated a letter-writing campaign aimed at persuading undecided voters in Clark County, Ohio, a key swing district, to vote.
The battle of global opinion is also raging online. Web sites have cropped up — including TheWorldVotes.org, run out of the Netherlands, and the Canada-based Voices04.org — encouraging non-U.S. citizens to voice their opinions.
Many polls have been running in foreign newspapers, gauging local reaction to the U.S. election.
This week a survey in the newspaper Die Welt found that 55 percent of those Germans asked would vote for Kerry and 12 percent would support Bush. The survey also found that a majority believed their negative attitude toward the United States was due to Bush’s presidency.
Will global opinion make a difference?
Kerry is running in part on a vow to mend relations with allies that were frayed over the Iraq war, but analysts say it might not be so clear cut.
“(French President Jacques) Chirac, of course, would welcome a President Kerry on the other side of the ocean, I’m quite sure," van Herpen said.
But van Herpen said that while some governments — like Paris and Madrid — and most Europeans might be perceived as anti-Bush, that does not necessarily apply to the leaders.
"There is a divide between the governments and the populations,” he said.
But amid the intense international interest in this year’s election, it is unclear whether the world opinions will have an effect on what American voters decide in November.
Indeed, research suggests global opinion has only a slight impact on Americans.
A recent University of Maryland poll found that world opinion may influence a small number — seven percent — of swing voters. That is twice as many as said it would decrease the likelihood they would vote for a candidate favored internationally.
“I think the American voters will vote for their own interests and for U.S. interests, and I don’t think [international opinion] will have a big impact,” van Herpen said.
Joyce, however, did see a potential downside for Kerry.
“Kerry can be damaged by this perception that he’s a champion of the rest of the world," he said. "It might sound good to the elites on the East and West coasts, but in the American heartland, I expect it’s not going to go down very well at all. And they’re the areas where Bush is the strongest.”