American elections

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(Host) Commentator Olin Robison shares his views on the international importance of the U.S. presidential elections.

(Robison) No other elections in the world receive the kind of global coverage accorded the American presidential elections. That worldwide interest, however, rarely translates into understanding.

I dare say that if you were to go to Germany or Italy, or Japan, or the Philippines — or wherever — and ask informed people to explain the U.S. Presidential process, you would likely draw a blank. It is, in fact, very complicated and quite unlike any other.

Most non-Americans, for instance, really do not understand how it could be that in the last elections, Al Gore got 500,000 more votes than George W. Bush and yet is not President.

Informed non-Americans also frequently follow news of the Presidential primaries, though many if not most would have difficulty locating Iowa or New Hampshire on a map.

The reason for such worldwide interest goes beyond the strength of the U.S. media. It has more to do with the importance of decisions made in Washington, both political and economic.

As one European said to me some time ago, “When the U.S. economy sneezes, the world economy catches a cold.”

Of course it matters who is president; not only the individual but the political party. Who could possibly think that Al Gore would have made the same foreign policy decisions that George Bush has made? Whether you like or dislike what is going on now, whether you think it wise or unwise, virtually all would agree that a different person would have made and now be making different decisions.

A long time ago in the hot and heavy years of the Cold War, I was invited to deliver a lecture for an audience at the Soviet Academy of Sciences in Moscow. They wanted someone, in this case me, to explain the Presidential election process.

Their Academy of Sciences in those days was something of a think tank on international issues. On this occasion there was an attentive audience of about 100 people — each of whom studied some aspect of the United States. The questions were sharp and well-informed. And then, toward the end, a young researcher stood and asked, in complete seriousness, if Russians might ever get to participate in the process. How might this be made to happen, he asked. His question provoked a solid round of applause.

As I travel to and in different parts of the world, I find the sentiments of the young Russian to be widely shared. It isn’t that he or they really think such will happen, but it reflects a very widely held view that the decisions made in Washington are so critical to the rest of the world that they — who ever they may be — have a legitimate interest. And of course they do.

This complex American process is what it is for historical reasons — some long since outdated and the original rationale mostly forgotten. And, as with most complex processes, reform is slow and usually resisted by various parties who like it the way it is.

My hope is that the process will continue to evolve and that the evolution will be toward greater simplicity, greater transparency, and, somehow, greater participation. All of that needs to keep happening if the United States wishes to be seen as the beacon of democratic practice. If one is to believe White House press releases, even President Bush himself would sign on to that.

This is Olin Robison.

Olin Robison is president of the Salzburg Seminar, located in Middlebury, Vermont and Salzburg, Austria.

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