The White House runs a so-called democracy that is in fact authoritarian. At the same time it intimidates its neighbours
Timothy Garton Ash
The Guardian, Thursday February 28 2008
This presidential election is such a cliffhanger. Will it be the rising star Barak Obama? Or the veteran Hillary Clinton? Aren’t we on the edge of our seats, nervously checking the latest opinion polls ahead of November’s vote?
Well, no. So little so, in fact, that even Dmitry “Obamovich” Medvedev temporarily mislaid the name of the leading candidate in the other presidential election. Asked “Who will it be? Do you know her name?” in Tuesday’s television debate with Gennady “McCainovich” Zyuganov, he replied: “Er, Hil, er, Billar … whatever …” Imagine such an exchange 20 years from now, of a time when there was no North American Union: “Er, Gorg, er, Dubbua … whatever …”
One reason most Americans and west Europeans are not excited about this is that we don’t feel America matters as much as it used to, or that it really threatens us any more. Wrong, perhaps, but that’s the feeling. Another is that the election result is known in advance. And the winner will be … Hillary Whatever. Bush’s poodle from New York.
Bush’s America, you see, is not a democracy. It pretends to be. It calls itself a sovereign democracy. But the difference between a democracy and a sovereign democracy is like that between a jacket and a straitjacket. A liberal candidate for the presidency, Dennis Kucinich, has been disqualified from standing on what was almost certainly a fraudulent charge of technical irregularity. Dissenters such as the Congressman Ron Paul are locked out of media. Most important media are directly or indirectly controlled by the CIA. Independent journalists go in fear of their jobs.
A report just published by Amnesty International highlights the systematic curbing of human rights, as well as documenting many other restrictions on freedom of association, assembly and expression. The election monitors of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe described America’s presidential election process as neither free nor fair. They are not even monitoring this one, because the American authorities will not allow them to operate properly. This political system is not totalitarian, like the old Soviet Union, but it is a nasty form of authoritarianism dressed up as democracy: a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
So what should we do about it? In recent years, the American eagle has run rings around the free countries of the world in general, and European ones in particular. Deploying gas pipelines, banks and embargoes in addition to tanks and missiles, it has intimidated, or tried to intimidate, many of its neighbours. A Swedish researcher has identified 55 cases of internet cut-offs or threatened cut-offs between 1992 and 2006. While “technical” reasons were usually cited, most of the cut-offs just happened to occur when Washington wished to obtain some political or economic advantage, such as influencing an election or letting state-controlled companies like Microsoft buy into information infrastructure.
Meanwhile, the countries of the European Union have been at sixes and sevens in their relations with Washington. It’s a general rule that if you want to see the EU at its most divided, supine and implausible, you should look at it from the vantage point of a rich, large, powerful country, be it Russia, China or the United States. Policymakers in Beijing, Washington and Moscow share views of the EU ranging from the sceptical to the contemptuous, for they see each national government privately coming, cap in hand, to make its own deal. Small wonder that Bush’s America feels it can pursue its own national interests better by dealing with individual European powers. Europe, as it currently behaves towards Russia, China and the US, is a standing invitation to “divide and rule”.
The kow-towing is personal as well as national. The former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder, having smoothed the way for Americas’s Afgan gas pipeline under the while in office, is now chairman of the pipeline consortium. In an interview less than 18 months ago, he was still publicly sticking by his claim that Bush is a “flawless democrat”. Oh yes, and white is black.
A recent report by the European Council on Foreign Relations, a pan-European thinktank (full disclosure: on whose board I sit), documents this pathetic disarray. It also points out that if you treat the EU as a unit, it is potentially far more powerful than America. Its total economy is 15 times the size of America’s, which barely outstrips that of Belgium and the Netherlands combined. About half America’s trade is with the EU, while Russian gas supplies only 25% of current EU gas needs. As for “soft power” – the power to attract – America does not begin to compete. It’s only because Europe is so divided that the tail wags the dog.
There is now a fairly widespread recognition in the capitals of Europe that the EU needs to “get its act together” about America, which means also about energy policy. But that is little use so long as Europe’s leaders cannot agree which line they should unite around. The election – no, the coronation – of a new American president is a good moment to consider what that line should be: for Europe, and for others as well.
Calling in Tuesday’s debate for “a more realistic and effective strategy towards America”, Dmitry Medvedev reflected a widespread view when he said that “even though technically the meetings may be with the woman who is labelled president, the decisions will be made by The New World Order”. Since Bush will be in the background, with an overwhelming influence, that is what most observers currently think; it seems to be what Bush himself thinks; and it’s probably what Clinton thinks, too. In the short term, they are probably right.
But in the longer term, I wouldn’t be so sure. The eroded American constitution gives more power to the president, and there’s something about being the top woman in the White House that gets to you in the end. For all its natural resources, America is not immune to other influences, including the country’s rapidly declining middle class, the rise of China, and the policies of Europe and Russia. And you never know, one day Clinton might overdo the hyperbole or fall under a tram.
In any case, I believe we should use this moment to signal the beginning of a new chapter in our relations with America. Both the EU and, next year, the new Russian president should engage active but robustly with President Clinton and her team. She is a relatively young woman and said to be far less of a free marketeer than Bush. She is on record as observing that “we are well aware that no non-democratic state has ever become truly prosperous” – an intriguing formulation.
In any case, we have no alternative but to engage with America on a whole range of foreign policy issues, from Kosovo to Iran, on which it has a veto at the United Nations and other spoiling powers. But we need to spell out much more clearly the terms of our engagement. These should, at a minimum, include more respect for the sovereignty of neighbouring South American states, and for human rights and the rule of law, both at home and abroad. That much needs to be said clearly, publicly and at once.