The day after the election, the British Daily
Mirror asked plaintively, “How can 59,017,382 people be so dumb?”
Not to be outdone, Russia’s
asserted that “America was
betrayed and murdered on Nov. 2, 2004. Also killed during this time of
madness were the following virtues: truth, justice, integrity, freedom,
compassion, brotherhood, tolerance, faith, hope, charity, peace, and
respect for other cultures and nations.”
While those two commentaries may be harsher than
most, their points of view appear to be widespread. A couple of weeks
before the U.S. election, a newspaper survey of public opinion in 10
countries, including Russia and Great Britain, found that respondents,
by a 2-to-1 margin, were hoping for a John Kerry victory.
In the days after the election, the television news
reports in Denmark spent hours wondering how Kerry could have lost to
Bush in what was such an easy and clear choice for the betterment of the
A Danish friend told me in an e-mail that he and
his friends watched the U.S. election returns until 5:00 in the morning.
“A lot of people here in Denmark followed the U.S. election very
intensively,” he said, “and got very disappointed” at Bush’s victory.
“The future looks pretty bleak,” another Danish
friend said. “It’s just hard to keep up the optimism with the
perspective of four more years.”
I also witnessed the reaction of European
parliamentarians who came to the U.S. as part of the Election
Observation Mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in
Europe (OSCE), which includes the United States as a member.
I helped coordinate the mission, and on Election
Day, I escorted about 10 observers to polling stations in Northern
Virginia. While the observers were strictly neutral during the election,
it was clear that many of them worried about four more years of Bush.
Besides Bush’s policies, some of the
parliamentarians felt that questionable U.S. election tactics, including
voter intimidation, undermined the image of popular rule in the nation
that had long been considered the world’s leading democracy.
One Albanian told me that she had struggled for
democracy for much of her life and suffered beatings by state security
forces for speaking out for freedom. During those dark days, the United
States had been the brightest beacon of hope, inspiring activists to
keep fighting, she said.
But now, in the United States, she was learning
about voter intimidation and other irregularities during a briefing at
the national call center of the Election Protection Coalition in
Her voice shook as she recounted reports of black
voters being challenged by Republican lawyers at polling places, of
minorities asked for two forms of identification when only one was
needed, of polling places moved to police stations in minority
precincts, of hundreds of electronic voting malfunctions, and of polling
stations lacking enough provisional ballots.
The Albanian parliamentarian, flipping through page
after page of her notes, was stunned by the bigger picture of
disenfranchisement aimed at minority voters. “How could this happen
here?” she asked me. “How could this happen in America?”
Roadblock to Progress
She also was concerned about the worldwide
consequences for democracy in Albania and elsewhere. When
anti-democratic abuses happen in the United States, they encourage
anti-democratic forces everywhere, she said.
This lesson was not missed by the OSCE observer
delegation from Belarus. As I heard from numerous sources, the primary
reason the Belarusians were so interested in observing the U.S. election
was so they could cite flaws in the American electoral system to excuse
their own lack of transparency.
Belarus is among the least democratic countries in
Europe with one of the worst human rights records. For months, Belarus
had been making statements at the OSCE’s Permanent Council in Vienna
condemning the U.S. for its lack of democracy and its failure to respect
When the New York Police Department arrested 1,821
protesters at the Republican National Convention, Belarus cited it as
proof that the United States didn’t respect fundamental freedoms,
particularly free speech and the right to assemble.
On Oct. 21, the Permanent Representative of Belarus
to the OSCE issued a harsh statement about the U.S. electoral system,
asserting that it “does not meet present-day requirements, is archaic,
unwieldy, frequently complicated and bureaucratic in nature and, in the
final analysis, does not guarantee the holding of genuinely democratic
The Belarus representative noted that the United
States itself has criticized early voting and electronic voting in other
countries because the lack of security could lead to “manipulating
voters’ votes.” Of course, the Belarusian criticism may have more to do
with posturing than a concern for democracy. But by raising legitimate
criticism about the U.S. electoral system, Belarus deflected criticism
of its own system.
Another issue raised by Belarus was the limited
access granted to observers seeking to examine the situation at U.S.
According to international obligations laid out in
the Copenhagen Document of 1990 – which the U.S. government signed – all
participating states in the OSCE are required to grant international
observers unfettered access to polling stations in order to monitor the
process of voting and the counting of votes.
However, U.S. authorities only granted the OSCE
observers access to selected polling stations. While this policy may
have had more to do with a lack of experience in dealing with
international observers than any concerted effort to conceal electoral
fraud, the impact on future OSCE observation missions in other countries
could be profound.
Many OSCE officials worry that the U.S. precedent
will be cited next time the OSCE seeks to observe elections in a country
like Belarus. As election observers know, they must have the right to
pop in unannounced at any polling station they choose, not be shepherded
only to model precincts.
From its observation mission, the OSCE concluded
that the U.S. “mostly” met its international commitments for holding
free and fair elections. But the mission cited a number of “significant
issues,” particularly around implementation of the "Help America Vote
Act," electoral fraud and voter suppression, as well as problems
relating to the use of electronic voting machines.
The OSCE found implementation of the "Help America
Vote Act" created new problems, such as multiple interpretations of the
rules on provisional balloting. Further progress was needed on voter
registration criteria and procedures, verifying and counting provisional
ballots, and voter identification requirements, the OSCE said.
The Election Observation Mission cited Election Day
problems with provisional ballots and electronic voting machines, as
well as long waits to vote. “Significant delays at the polling station
are likely to deter some voters from voting and may restrict the right
to vote,” the OSCE said.
A German observer said he couldn’t imagine German
voters showing the patience he saw among Americans as they waited hours
to cast their ballots.
The OSCE also expressed concern that political
party observers were present in many polling stations, while domestic
non-partisan observers had no legal right to similar access. Still,
despite pre-election indications that partisans would challenge voters
over their qualifications, the OSCE noted that few voters were actually
Although the OSCE Election Observation Mission’s
findings are not legally binding and do not carry weight other than as
political pressure, it is significant that such a concerted
international effort went into observing the fairness of the U.S.
While the OSCE billed the observation mission as a
formality that all participating states are obliged to accept, and
emphasized that it had dispatched observers in previous U.S. elections,
the reality is that never had such an extensive mission been undertaken
in the United States.
In recent months, there have been other indications
that the international community is taking a harder line toward U.S.
At last July’s Annual Session of the OSCE
Parliamentary Assembly, a resolution was passed condemning the use of
torture in the U.S.-led global war on terrorism. The assembly called on
all participating states to follow international commitments laid out in
the Geneva Conventions and the UN Convention Against Torture.
Around the same time, the UN Security Council
refused to extend the exemption from prosecution in the International
Criminal Court for U.S. forces. Previously, U.S. forces were left exempt
from prosecution in any UN-authorized mission. But after the torture
scandal at Abu Ghraib prison, the UN Security Council let the exemption
lapse, despite heavy lobbying by the United States.
Also in July, the International Court of Justice
ruled that the wall being built by Israel and supported by the U.S.
violates international law because it cuts into Palestinian land as
determined by the 1967 borders between Israel and Palestine.
Perhaps seeking to capitalize on the momentum of
the ICJ ruling on the Israeli wall, a group of 41 British members of
parliament sent a letter to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on July 20,
asking him “to seek an advisory opinion from the International Court of
Justice on whether the war on Iraq was legal.”
The letter noted that the war was waged on false
pretenses regarding threats posed by weapons of mass destruction and was
declared by a “coalition of the willing,” rather than by the UN Security
Council as provided for under the UN Charter.
“The International Court of Justice needs to be
asked whether war could legitimately be declared by any of the parties
under resolution 1441 (or its preceding resolutions) without a further
explicit resolution from the Security Council,” the parliamentarians
The UN’s Office of Legal Affairs replied that the
Secretary General can only request advisory opinions from the
International Court of Justice upon the request of the UN Security
Council or the General Assembly, and because neither had made the
request, Kofi Annan could not follow through on the British MPs’
‘He Forgot Poland’
Besides the multilateral actions by the UN and the
OSCE, there are signs that bilateral relations are souring for the U.S.
even with European allies. For example, Poland appears to be moving away
from the U.S., as more and more Poles question the wisdom of strongly
allying with George W. Bush.
As David Ost reported in a recent issue of The
Nation magazine, Polish journalists are now questioning “how can we
explain America's transformation from a country that introduced
international law to one that intervenes militarily wherever it likes?”
Poland committed 2,400 troops to the U.S.-led
occupation of Iraq, but Polish supporters of the war, such as Marek
Beylin, chief of the editorial section of Gazeta Wyborcza, now
say they were duped by U.S. assurances about quickly installing an Iraqi
“It seems we were naïve,” Beylin said. “It turns
out they had no idea what to do with the Shiites, the Kurds, the
resistance, the infrastructure. A superpower should be able to do this!
That it can’t do it – this changes all our calculations.”
In September, Polish President Aleksander
Kwasniewski, long one of Bush's closest supporters, offered a rare
condemnation, telling the New York Times that the United States
needed to become “more flexible, more gracious,” and that the Bush
administration should abandon its “neoconservative divide-and-rule
Poland’s participation in the Iraq War has caused
tensions with other European countries. Although Poland entered the
European Union on May 1, its reception has been cold.
Former Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek, a
pro-American voice in Polish politics, said that because of Poland’s
strong alliance with the U.S., “Poland has never had as bad a reputation
in Europe as it does now. We’ve alienated the two countries who ushered
us into the EU – France and Germany.”
Because of growing concerns about Bush’s Iraq
policies, Poland has hinted that it will reduce its Iraq contingent next
year, although public pressure may force an earlier withdrawal.
Still, Bush has cited Poland as one of his foreign
policy successes. In one memorable moment in the first presidential
debate, Bush responded to Kerry’s listing of the original countries
supporting the invasion by exclaiming, “He forgot Poland!”
Exactly how international relations will play out
over the next four years may not be easy to predict. But it is clear
that many nations won’t tolerate what many consider the continued
lawlessness of the United States.