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George W. Bush, Al Gore or civil war? This is the question being asked now by alarmists, especially those with a taste for theatrical overstatement.

Civil wars do not happen in countries with booming economies, where blue-collar workers install satellite dishes and 20-year-old Internet moguls buy private planes and multimillion-dollar Caribbean retreats. Texas will not secede, and nobody is going to raid Florida. Yet the current political crisis is definitely introducing America to a higher level of intolerance — and even some violence.

Officials in Florida have been confronted by angry pro-Bush mobs, which East Coast Democrats promptly labeled fascist. Without a doubt, more such incidents will occur. The farce of November 2000 will not be forgotten or forgiven by either partisan group. As a young American woman I know put it, “No matter who the next president is, he is likely to be shot.” This pronouncement might tip over into the fevered realm of conspiracy theory, but the president who actually was shot 37 years ago, John F. Kennedy, had also won the office by a tiny margin.

Almost everyone agrees that the next president will be hostage to the consequences of the current electoral crisis. He will have to abstain from provocative political moves domestically, and the issues debated in this campaign will probably have to be shelved for another four years. But what will happen to U.S. foreign policy and the United States’ role in the world? Right now, foreign capitals are watching developments in America with either irritation or glee. Western nations express their concern; countries like Russia and China loudly celebrate. But will all this fade away after America finally makes its choice?

Hardly. This debacle has dealt the strongest blow in 30 years to the country’s international prestige. As some of us remember, America’s drastic weakening in the early 1970s, following the Vietnam War and Watergate, had a direct and dramatic impact on global international relations. Leftwing parties thrived, creating a window of opportunity for the Soviet empire. The Middle East descended into bloody chaos; Iran underwent an Islamic fundamentalist revolution and then went to war with Iraq; the Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan; Lebanon disintegrated. Anti-Americanism worldwide brought Moscow more client states like Ethiopia, Angola and Laos; even South America saw its first attempt at a socialist transformation with Salvador Allende’s government in Chile. It took the U.S. nearly a decade to pull things together, but when it did, under President Ronald Reagan, it arguably succeeded in large part because of the decay of its Soviet adversary.

In a sense, the current political crisis is worse than Watergate. Yes, President Richard Nixon had to step down because he had committed something very close to a felony, thus plunging the nation into the controversy and instability. But Watergate was also good news for everyone who believed in American democracy. The most acute constitutional crisis was resolved solely by law. It took time and the process was painful, but the message to the world was clear: Even a president can be fired for his transgressions; in the U.S., nobody is allowed to trample upon the basic principles of democracy.

In November 2000, the situation looks very different. Despite his obvious sins and authoritarian tendencies, Nixon maintained a certain degree of dignity throughout the crisis — particularly at the end, when he resigned. Bush and Gore are elbowing each other on the doorstep of the White House like two schoolboys lining up for a disco. Their envoys in Florida fight for every undecided ballot, snapping at each other and the stressed-out counters in West Palm Beach. The disputed margin — a few hundred votes — is so narrow that it simply cannot be calculated precisely. The shaking hand of an old lady or a youth who happened to be high on Nov. 7 can mess up a ballot decisively. If the ridiculous mutual obstinacy persists, partisans on both sides could spend the next four years fighting over a couple of hundred disputed ballots, to the consternation and/or mirth of the rest of the world.

It looks as if the West will have to get through the period from 2001 to 2004 without a leader. Whether it’s Bush or Gore, the next U.S. president will carry an aura of illegitimacy and unfair play. Attending summits and discussing crucial strategies with America’s partners, he will lack both a popular mandate and broad domestic support. This is an unprecedented situation. Of course, America has had weak presidents before (e.g., Jimmy Carter), but the deficiencies of those leaders had little to do with America itself, with the way it lives and votes. 2001-2004 will be an excellent opportunity for any Western politician seeking greater prominence for himself and his nation. At least three international issues demand some sort of concerted Western action: the former Yugoslavia, Iraq and Palestine. Russian President Vladimir Putin, with his nationalistic bias, Chinese leaders bent on regional supremacy and cunning dictators like North Korea’s Kim Jong Il or Cuba’s Fidel Castro will also add to the list of challenges.

Will this result, finally, in the independent leadership of France, Germany and Britain in Europe? What about the rivalries and contradictions between these three nations? What will happen to East Asia, with China on the rise and North Korea in agony? Will Japan take the leading role in maintaining regional stability? And what about the Middle East?

This is not to say that the demise of the U.S. as the world’s lone superpower has already occurred. It hasn’t. But it is almost certain that in the next four years America will become more isolationist, more preoccupied with restoring self-confidence and self-respect, more withdrawn. The challenges facing the rest of the world as a result of this unexpected autism are obvious.

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