In recent days, George W. Bush’s reputation, oddly, has been improving more abroad than at home. Part of the cause is Iran’s defiance of the European negotiators trying to short-circuit its nuclear programme. That renders the US leader president more important. Mr Bush is also enjoying lingering kudos from the Group of Eight summit in Gleneagles in July, where he showed himself to be closer than anticipated to Europe’s views on climate change and African aid.
The main factor is probably British reaction to the London bombings of July 7. UK voters have called for tough action, even if it involves scaling back civil liberties, and Tony Blair has answered these calls with Bush-like rhetoric. “Let no one be in doubt,” Mr Blair the British prime minister said last week, as he urged strengthening laws against those who abet or glorify terrorism. “The rules of the game are changing.” The proposed measures resemble those passed by the Christian Democrat–led government in the Netherlands after a Muslim radical killed Theo van Gogh, the film director, last November. Some of Mr Blair’s proposals are more draconian than anything in Mr Bush’s Patriot Act, which has been much derided abroad, not least in Britain. Taken together, the Dutch and British crackdowns show that Mr Bush’s reaction to the September 11 2001 attacks, while forceful, was not necessarily nationalistic or “unilateralist”. Nor was it evidence that the American public had abandoned its concern for the rule of law. It was within the range of what free countries that come under terrorist attack tend to do.
But there may be a more basic cause for Mr Bush’s rehabilitation. Even in those countries that complain loudest about Mr Bush’s presidency, people often want to be ruled by his local equivalents. The one complaint that unites criticisms of Mr Bush in Europe, Latin America, the Muslim world and elsewhere is that he has moved the US from a posture of international co-operation to one of provincialism. Britain’s Daily Mirror spoke for many when it bannered its US election edition last November with the headline: “How can 59,054,087 people be so DUMB?” The answer is, they probably cannot be. What American voters were doing was voting for provincial virtues. In this they are not alone. Provincialism has become an asset for leaders practically everywhere.
This development has everything to do with globalisation. Today’s governing classes have strong incentives to learn human-rights rhetoric, basic development economics and the English language, to attend international conferences and to sign multilateral communiqués. Knowing how to turn one’s country into an efficient cog in the international economic machine is indispensable expertise. But for that reason, politicians who possess such expertise are a dime a dozen, and voters know it. Mr Bush’s two electoral opponents, Al Gore and John Kerry, had more impressive political resumés than Mr Bush’s own, but this weighed little in the minds of voters. Both Mr Gore and Mr Kerry might have made excellent presidents but neither was any better suited to that job than he would have been to be president of the European Commission, head of the World Trade Organisation or prime minister of Liechtenstein. That is why they did so well at winning the affections of foreigners.
Domestically, this is seldom what interests voters most. A rarer and more highly valued gift is an instinct for what makes one’s country special. Rightly or wrongly, voters believe they see evidence of this instinct whenever one of their politicians behaves in a way that would make him a fish out of water anywhere else on earth. This appeal may seem absurdly superficial to political scientists – it may involve little more than a folkloric accent or a taste for the local beer. In Mr Bush’s case it was a rural piety, assumed late in life but conveyed in a way that the masses find sincere and elites find embarrassing.
But it is not just an American predilection. Gerhard Schröder, for all his slogans of modernisation, is the most provincial chancellor that Germany has had since the second world war. Over two elections, his lack of interest in the anguished relationship to world opinion that marked his post-war predecessors was a signal that he would defend German interests, just as his ostentatious enjoyment of beer, cigars and women signalled that he would defend, as best he could, the German lifestyle. Jan-Peter Jan Peter Balkenende, appealing to the small-town pieties of the Netherlands, has turned his very awkwardness into an electoral asset; the inability of policy elites in Amsterdam
and The Hague even to explain his popularity gives him
another point in common with Mr Bush.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with his sense of Islam as it is lived locally, is the George Bush of Turkey. His religious rhetoric is structurally almost identical, even though its terms are immediately comprehensible only to his fellow countrymen. It is unlikely that non-Japanese would find Junichiro Koizumi’s well-publicised fondness for geisha girls a vote-getter or that Hugo Chavez’s tendency to rattle on about baseball would appeal to non-Venezuelans or that there is a country outside of Italy to which the political style of Silvio Berlusconi could be readily exported.
Globalisation requires leaders to enact – or permit – wide-ranging reforms in state and society. Voters are often understandably attached to the old system, particularly where it has included a high level of international prestige or a highly developed welfare or corporatist state. They want evidence that their government is breaking with the status quo only reluctantly. That is why, when they choose a leader, they are not only looking for someone with the brains to decide which traditions need to be sacrificed on the altar of efficiency. They are also looking for someone with the heart to decide which traditions need to be defended tooth and nail.
The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard
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