The Election that affects us all

#romney & #obama big @BalboaTheatreSF #debate ...

Romney & Obama at Balboa Theatre SF debate (Photo credit: Steve Rhodes)

So, Barack or Mitt? Today Americans vote in an election whose effects will be felt in almost every corner of the globe.

I’m not an American, and I don’t have a vote, so I’m not going to say who I think should win between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. In a sense, as Stephen Fry said recently, it’s none of my business. I know how offended I get when outsiders start telling me how we should run our country — most recently when Mitt Romney said this summer that London wasn’t properly prepared for the Olympics.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t care who wins, and it doesn’t mean I won’t be sitting up late into the night, with a glass of Wild Turkey whiskey, watching the results come in. Because if the choice is no one’s business but America’s, the result of the election is everybody’s business. This is the one election in the world we all have a stake in.

The US presidential election is the only foreign election I stay up at night for. I’ve followed elections in countries I’ve lived in, and I’ve always watched my home elections in the UK. But American elections exert a fascination across thousands of miles.

And it’s not because of the razzmatazz, the wildly expensive campaigns, the celebrity endorsements, or the drama. It’s because the results affect us all.

There is a tendency among certain European intellectuals to shrug and say it doesn’t matter who wins in American presidential elections, because while they may disagree on domestic policies for America, on the issues that affect the outside world they stand for the same values, and there’s no meaningful difference between them. I fell into this trap in 2000. I said I didn’t care who won between George W Bush and Al Gore, because on every question that affected me they agreed with each other.

Three years later I found myself in Iraq, reporting on an occupation whose aftershocks are still reverberating through the world today. I had plenty of time, sitting in the back of a car being chased at high speed through prime kidnapping territory, running for my life through the back streets of Karbala as mortars fell in the midst of packed crowds of pilgrims, to reflect on my blase attitude to the 2000 election. If Al Gore had won, he might well have gone into Afghanistan after 9/11, but I don’t think he’d have taken America into Iraq.

There are a few places around the world, notably Iran and some of its neighbours, where they will watch the results come in tonight with great personal interest.

There is a certain irony that on domestic issues, which affect the voters who elect them, American presidents’ power is circumscribed. They have to get their policies through Congress. But in foreign policy, where they affect the lives of those who don’t have a vote, their power is much less limited: they can start a war or invade a country.

But it’s not just military and foreign policy that affect the rest of us. The issue that has dominated this election, the state of the US economy, matters to us all. The global financial crisis of recent years has left no doubt that in the 21st century, what happens in one economy has a knock-on effect in others, especially one as big and significant as the US.

And so in the last few days, as we do every four years, we have all acquired a sudden interest in corners of the US that we don’t think about much the rest of the time. New York and California may fascinate all the time, but places like Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin only pop up for most of us outside the US in presidential election years, when we find ourselves peering at television footage of unfamiliar cities, the other America, the great interior.

There’s an island off the coast of India, called North Sentinel, where one of the world’s last untouched indigenous tribal peoples lives. Armed with bows and arrows, they have resisted all attempts at contact from the modern world, and every few years they kill a fishermen or an inquisitive offiicial who strays too close. That island may be one of very few places in the world where nobody cares about the results of the US election.

The rest of us will be watching.


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