LONDON — “A woman president, a black president or the oldest president — which would you prefer?”
That was the question put by an audience member to a recent panel of politicians and journalists on the BBC’s “Question Time” TV program. The politicians on the panel were careful to avoid appearing ready to interfere in U.S. politics, but there was no doubt that the panel and the audience regarded the choice of the next U.S. president as of particular importance to everyone in Britain.
The discussion showed that the anti-American feelings manifest in Britain since the beginning of the Iraq war are more anti-President George W. Bush than anything else. The love-hate relationship between Britain and America — “divided by a common language” — will not disappear, but once Bush, like former Prime Minister Tony Blair, has left the political arena for the lucrative lecture circuit, British attitudes toward America should become more rational and warm.
The British, who now realize that many Americans are just as anti-Bush as they are, have an affinity with America that goes deeper than that between any other European country and the United States. The older generation can’t forget that without the support led by President Franklin D. Roosevelt we might have been overwhelmed by Nazi Germany; and that without the Marshall Plan the European economies might have taken many decades to recover, the numbers of the starving would have escalated and Western Europe might well have fallen under the sway of communist regimes.
Of course, no single person, even backed by the huge power of the U.S., can hope to change the world in four or eight years. Other countries will doubtless be disappointed, angry and perhaps afraid of policies pursued by the next president. But we can be sure that they will be different from those of Bush in some very important respects.
All three leading candidates (Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama for the Democrats and Sen. John McCain for the Republicans) want to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which is a disgrace for America. They will no longer permit the CIA to “waterboard” prisoners and use other cruel, unacceptable and dangerous procedures, because torture leads to lies.
Despite strong pressures from the Republican right, McCain has consistently maintained a firm stand on the essential principles of human rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.
All three candidates have shown that on climate change and global warming they will work closely with the rest of the international community to try to find a Kyoto Protocol successor that has teeth. Feelings outside the U.S. against the U.S. stand at the recent Bali conference were profound.
The signs of global warming and climate change are increasingly apparent as floods and droughts become more frequent. The blame may rest as much with China and India as with the U.S., but the U.S., as a developed nation and the largest single polluter, has to take the lead. California has moved to show the way. Although reaching global agreement will be difficult, we can count on real change in the U.S. position, whoever is elected.
The problems of Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran will not disappear, and whoever enters the White House will have to make difficult decisions that will not be universally popular. Even those who initially supported the Iraq war now recognize that the decision to invade in 2003 was a mistake based on inadequate or false intelligence and that the policies adopted in Iraq in the first few years of the occupation have been disastrous.
Even McCain, who backed the U.S. troop surge — which has had some significant successes — will want to reduce troop levels in Iraq if only to mitigate the strain on U.S. armed forces. Obama and Clinton would want to move faster, but neither will wish to be accused of scuttling U.S. obligations.
Afghanistan and Pakistan are probably more difficult than Iraq. NATO countries are reluctant to be sucked into a long drawn-out war that, if history is any guide, will be very difficult to win, but the al-Qaida threat cannot simply be left to fester. Instability in Pakistan and the bumper opium harvest in Afghanistan demand attention, but the scope for effective action is limited.
With Iran, it is hoped that a new president will be willing to try to establish a dialogue that can put past grievances aside. The danger of an Islamic atomic bomb is real, but Pakistan, an unstable Islamic country already has one.
The biggest foreign policy problem for any president remains that of Israel and the Palestinians. Support for Israel is strong in both the Democratic and Republican parties, but we may hope that the new president will be more willing than Bush was until very recently to engage the two sides. Pressure on Israel will be needed if solutions are to be found, and the warring Palestinian factions including Hamas must be persuaded to recognize Israel.
As seen from London, McCain, who is credited with being a firm supporter of free trade, is the only Republican who stands a chance of reaching out to the center ground. The thought of a Bush clone being elected sends a shudder down the backs of British observers.
On the Democratic side, America-watchers are torn between Obama and Clinton. Both are subject to protectionist pressures that would be damaging to the world economy. A woman president would break the mold, and Clinton’s experience as a politician is recognized, but there is also the feeling that dynastic politics have had their day.
Obama’s appeal transcends color: He has youth and charisma and a freshness that appeals across the political divide. But what will be his politics?
If the outcome of the primaries was not so important for the world, perhaps more attention would be paid to ways of reducing the role of money in elections.
Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.