Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 1 November 2004


Bush or Kerry?  The choice of who becomes US President for the next four years is expected to have very significant consequences for the world.  A Bush victory may lead to more of the same movement to US unilateral exercise of power.  But would a Kerry Presidency be much different?

ALL eyes this week will be on the Presidential elections in the United States.  Come Tuesday, Americans will elect George W. Bush or John Kerry as their next President.

It’s hard to predict who will win.  Bush appears to have a slight overall lead of two or three percentage points in most opinion polls.  But overall vote counts are less important in the US system than obtaining the “electoral college” votes by winning a majority of votes in the different states.

As there is already a clear choice between the two candidates in most states, the result of the elections is expected to be decided in a few “swing states” such as Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Each party is already accusing the other of dirty tricks.  Republicans have been accusing the Democrats of rounding up people to register to vote, and will be checking for fraudulent voting.  Democrats expect their opponents to intimidate their supporters from voting.

And each candidate is expected to use the courts to challenge results in hotly contested districts and states.  The last Presidential election in 2000 was decided by a decision of the Supreme Court.  This might happen again.

Does it matter who wins?  In the past, the difference between a Republican and a Democrat President would be so small that there was a popular saying that it was like choosing between Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola.

It did not make much difference who won.  But this time around, most people believe it really matters, partly because of the major way Bush has defined his Presidency, and partly because of the precarious state of the world.

During his first term, Bush has made a big impact on the US and the world.  Domestically, he has been partisan to big industry interests, especially in the oil sector.

He has cut taxes especially for the rich and rapidly built up huge budget deficits, whilst the US trade deficit has also climbed.  

His domestic security responses to September 11 split the nation, as detentions of thousands of people suspected of terrorist links or activities curbed civil liberties, with a perception that the measures have discriminated against Arabs and Muslims. 

He has also rolled back pro-environmental rules and policies, thereby enraging the environmental movements. 

His opponents claim that four more years of Bush would cause wider divisions between rich and poor, financial and economic catastrophe, more human rights violations and environmental disaster. 

And for the world, what an impact Bush has made!  The Bush doctrine of unilateral pre-emptive strike against enemies and states perceived as being a potential threat has undermined the system of international law and the United Nations.

That doctrine, implemented spectacularly in the war on Iraq, has generated uproar and high anti-American feelings around the world.  

The partisanship showed by the Bush administration for Israel vis-à-vis the Palestinians and its lack of interest in pursuing a peace agenda has likewise enraged the Arab region and beyond.   The violations to prisoners held by US forces in Guantanamo Bay and in Iraq have also seriously damaged if not destroyed the image of the US as a world champion of human rights.

Bush withdrew the US from the Kyoto Protocol designed to combat climate change, and left in disarray the future prospects of international environmental cooperation.

Many people outside the US fear that four more years of Bush are likely to lead to more US unilateral aggression against other states such as Iran and Syria.  The system of international peace and security, built around the UN charter, would collapse, and there will be a return wholesale to the law of the jungle.

There are fears that with Bush continuing giving a blank cheque to Israel, the oppression of the Palestinians under occupation will intensify, and that the divide between Muslim and non-Muslim countries and communities will widen.  Moreover, another four Bush years would cause further harm to the global environment.

A survey of 35 countries by Globescan showed that in 30 countries there is an overwhelming preference for Kerry to win. This may be due to a strong reaction against Bush than a positive endorsement of Kerry, who remains a somewhat unknown figure, as far as his policies are concerned.

From his general pronouncements, that the US cannot go it alone but needs to win the support of other countries, Kerry has given the impression that he would bring the US back to the fold of international law and multilateral cooperation.

But he also gave notice that no international body (meaning the UN) will have a veto over the US should it decide to act.

It must also be recalled that the Democrats also have an aggressive record in interfering with other countries’ affairs.  As the New Statesman in its editorial reminds us, Democrat Presidents took the US to war in Korea and Vietnam and were as ruthless as Republicans in maintaining the US grip in Central and South America.

Hopes that Kerry will take a more multilateral approach are mistaken, argues Lindsey Hilsum, editor of Channel 4 News.  When Bush told the Israeli prime minister that he would support retaining major Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Kerry agreed with that policy.

“It is entirely possible that, once in office, he would challenge the Israeli government, but there is nothing in Kerry’s statements or voting record which suggests any understanding of the Palestinians,” says Hilsum.

To support her thesis that Kerry would not make much difference, she quotes a French politician, Pierre Lellouche:  “I do not agree with the notion that the policies of George Bush are a temporary aberration. What’s been happening in America for the past 15 years isn’t neo-conservatism but nationalism.”

In other words, both Republican and Democrat leaders are part of the movement towards the unilateral exercise of US power. 

Critics say that Kerry will have a better style in trying to win the support of the rest of the world (as against the crude Bush attitude of “you are either with us or against us”) but that he will basically continue the shift to US unilateralism.

That may turn out to be so, should Kerry win the Presidency.  However, for many people around the world who have seen and felt the consequences of Bush’s four years, the prospect of another four Bush years is considered with dread.

They are placing their hopes on a new President, who does not appear to be as driven by narrow interests and by the desire to exercise US military power as Bush seems to have been.

For the environmentalists, it is simple choice.  Bush’s record has been so dismal that in contrast Kerry looks like an environmental champion.  Whether he can bring the US back into the global environmental community, if he becomes President, remains to be seen.   

Thus, overall, this Tuesday’s election between Bush and Kerry will make a lot of difference, far more than the choice between Pepsi and Coca Cola.   That’s why the world will be watching intently this week.