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Sunday, Nov. 19, 2000

U.S. credibility put to test


NEW DELHI -- Political scientist Samuel Huntington has aptly described the United States as the "sole state with pre-eminence in every domain of power -- economic, military, diplomatic, ideological, technological and cultural -- with the reach capabilities to promote its interests in virtually every part of the world." America's unrivaled power has long been rooted in Franklin D. Roosevelt's principles of "righteous might" and "absolute victory."

America's power has continued to grow despite profound world changes in the past decade. As the U.S. enjoys its longest economic boom in history, the information age continually increases its global political and cultural reach and the revolution in military affairs keeps it militarily supreme. These heady times for the U.S. have prompted Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to call America "the indispensable nation . . . because we stand tall and hence see further than other nations."

The current spectacle of the presidential race politically bifurcating the most powerful democracy not only mystifies the world but also shows that the sole superpower hardly stands tall. The political logjam must be particularly embarrassing for a country that sees itself as a role model and whose foreign policy is based on self-righteous proselytizing about democracy. With the demise of Soviet communism and the Chinese Communist Party's embrace of market capitalism, the only power still wedded to a distinct ideology is the U.S.

The bifurcation of the U.S. is most evident not only from the division of the Senate and House down the middle, but also the way cities went Democratic, the countryside Republican and the suburbs split evenly between the two parties. There also are important divides along gender, class and racial lines. America appears politically Balkanized, with Gore taking the coasts and Great Lake area and Bush the South, the Rocky Mountain states and Midwest.

After the closest and most disputed presidential election in more than a century, the U.S. shows itself as flawed, unsure and lacking in answers as the nations that circles in Washington poke fun at. If either Democrat Al Gore or Republican George W. Bush acted rashly at this stage to grab power by means fair or foul, U.S. democracy could suffer grievously.

That the political mess is rooted in an anachronistic system of indirect voting that blocks majority rule is a poor advertisement for America's credentials as a champion of democracy in the modern world. If Bush becomes president by collecting more Electoral College votes despite losing the popular vote, the world will ask how that conforms to the democratic principles of majority rule. If Gore makes it to the White House, the long and controversial route to the presidency will compromise his legitimacy.

Despite its rhetoric, the U.S. political system is less than egalitarian. The process to register as a voter, for example, weighs heavily against the poor and disadvantaged. The Electoral College system, although founded on federalist principles to protect the political relevance of small states, has turned into a guardian of special interests. The "winner-takes-all" rule, followed by 48 of the 50 U.S. states, also raises questions about the democratic character of this system, with the victor of popular vote in a state taking all its electors.

The Electoral College was designed by the framers of the U.S. Constitution as the middle ground between election by popular vote and election by national and state legislators. If Bush scrapes through, he will not be the first to become U.S. president by winning the Electoral College vote but losing the popular vote. That happened twice before, first in 1876 when Rutherford B. Hayes won over Samuel Tilden, and then in 1888 when Republican Benjamin Harrison edged out the incumbent, Grover Cleveland. The victory in such cases is tainted, as seen in the subsequent references to "Rutherfraud" Hayes.

In an election as close as it could possibly be, further surprises can hardly be ruled out. First is the possibility of the election outcome getting caught in endless litigation. In a society where the majority of citizens are acutely aware of rights and litigation is the archetypal way to seek justice, lawsuits and countersuits are not a surprise. However, a long and ugly court process would exact heavy U.S. political costs internally and overseas.

Second, with the election too close to call, horse-trading by either side in the Electoral College could play havoc with the system. Although the electors are committed to one candidate or the other, there is nothing definite in law to prevent them from defecting. Stray cases of defection have occurred in the past but none have affected the outcome of any election. But when the newest electors meet in state capitals on Dec. 18 to vote, they could rewrite history. Three electors switching sides would seal Bush's fate even if he carries Florida.

Clearly, the U.S. political system is on trial today. How it salvages the present situation will have an important bearing on America's international image and its ability to propagate certain values and norms. Although America's power has grown enormously, its influence has declined, in part because many other nations have prospered and it is no longer easy for the U.S. to influence the behavior of others through diktats. Equality and mutual respect are now central principles in international relations.

Most empires in history have collapsed under the weight of domestic fissures and contradictions. This was true of Pax Romana as it was of the Ottoman Empire. America's faceless enemies are looking at its political crisis as a gift from heaven that would sow the seeds of internal discord to eventually destroy Pax Americana. They are misjudging.

Although the U.S. has rarely appeared more bifurcated than today, nationalism runs deep in American society. What distinguishes a successful state from a not-so-successful state is the manner it identifies and advances national interests. What has made the U.S. the greatest power is its national pride and assertive promotion of vital interests.

The U.S. political divide could either help build political consensus at home or make consensual politics more difficult. Since no great ideological chasm separates the two candidates, the winner should not find it difficult to reah out to the other side to overcome the fractured verdict. On foreign policy, differences between the two are narrow, as a broad consensus exists on core U.S. interests and their advancement.

As a country with a universal mission, the U.S. can hardly afford this political crisis. But it is premature to believe that this divide will dent America's overbearing international power. The key question is whether it will dent its political system, the credibility of which is of vital importance to America's international standing.

Brahma Chellaney, a strategic-affairs expert based in New Delhi, contributes regularly to The Japan Times.


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