Disillusionment is the most painful of emotions. For many Europeans who wanted to see George Bush’s first presidency as an aberration in America’s history, his win on November 2 will confirm a frightening truth: More than half of US voters really do wish to live in a fortress of solipsism, a faith-based bubble indifferent to the rest of the world except insofar as America needs it to maintain its oil-based lifestyle. If, as some people suggested, all of us out here whose lives will be affected by the US election had had a chance to vote, the outcome would have been quite different. A couple of weeks before the election, a newspaper survey of public opinion in ten countries, including Russia and Britain, found that respondents, by a 2-to-1 margin, wanted a Kerry victory. In Europe, only the Poles hoped to see Bush elected. (Of course, many Israelis are also happy–to quote Sharon, “Bush is the best friend Israel ever had”–although few Palestinians had any illusions about what they could hope for from the Democrats.)
Inevitably the postelection media were full of tactful equivocations, brave faces and the search for silver linings. Perhaps G.W. Bush II will be different from G.W. Bush I; perhaps he will see the need to heal the rifts he has opened up, in the world as well as in America; perhaps a concern for his place in history rather than the next election will induce him to take global warming seriously. But as they talk about their hopes, the radio pundits–conservatives as well as social democrats–sound as if they’re still rooting for Kerry, for a President who, in the words of one British Foreign Office insider, would change, if not the policies, at least “the atmospherics.”
But if most of Europe’s people are depressed and disappointed, some of their leaders are privately relieved. Germany’s Gerhard Schröder and France’s Jacques Chirac will not now have to figure out how to say no to Kerry when he asks for help in Iraq. Tony Blair will not be the last of the Iraq triumvirate in power, and seems to imagine that he can cash in his chips with the White House to restart the Middle East peace process. There are signs that, having paid his dues in Washington, he may try to mend fences in Europe: Britain is already in talks with France, Germany and Iran about Iran’s nuclear program and will probably side with Europe against the United States on a French push to lift an EU arms embargo against China. But Europe itself is riven with disagreements on everything from finance to foreign policy, and those who hope to use Bush’s election as a catalyst for unity will have their work cut out for them.
From here, the most frightening thing about Bush’s victory is the prospect of a world divided between warring fundamentalisms, with Europe in the middle struggling to hold on to its Enlightenment legacy. On the day after the US election the second-biggest story in several European newspapers was the murder in Amsterdam of Theo van Gogh, a deliberately provocative filmmaker whose latest work dramatized the abuse of a Muslim woman. The film was scripted by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali refugee who has become a right-wing, anti-immigrant MP; van Gogh’s killer was a young man with dual Dutch and Moroccan nationality. The messianic clash-of-civilizations rhetoric coming from the White House only sharpens tensions like these. On the morning after the election, Sir Christopher Meyer, former British Ambassador to Washington, spoke with undiplomatic plainness on the BBC: “If I was Osama bin Laden, which fortunately I’m not, I would be wanting at this moment to help Bush.”