Nina Andronikof slept peacefully on Tuesday night. When the 30-year-old Parisian went to bed, John Kerry had a good shot at being President. "But I got up at 7:00 a.m., went online, and said, 'Oh, merde!'"
In many languages, that was Europe's reaction to George W. Bush's victory: not quite shock and awe, perhaps, but fury, incomprehension and frustration, with muted cheers coming from only a few pro-Bush corners. If the result left America bitterly divided, it left Europe remarkably united wondering why Americans would want another four years of a man whose words and deeds have alienated most of the U.S.'s allies.
No American election in living memory has riveted Europeans the way this one has, and that intense focus wasn't merely driven by hatred for Bush (though there is, of course, plenty of that to go around). Instead, Europe looked to this election to settle a deeper question: whether America itself had become an alien planet, one with values and perceptions so different from Europe's that the great postwar Atlantic alliance might never be repaired. By re-electing the President, even by such a slim margin, America has provided what many Europeans will take as definitive proof that the U.S. really is an incomprehensible place and that the chasms and fights of the past several years are likely to continue. The President's win "erodes the view that one must distinguish between the disliked Bush Administration and the American society we've always loved," says André Kaspi, director of the Sorbonne's North American History Center.
Never mind that 55 million Americans voted to send Bush back to Texas. Never mind that of those who considered Iraq the country's most important issue, 74% voted for Kerry. The American conservatives whose policies have helped push global attitudes toward the U.S. to an all-time low have won again. To Europe, that suggests that the mutual disdain will continue, and that Europe and the U.S. are bound to drift further apart, even if their size and importance condemn them to keep doing business together. "There is in fact a certain degree of astonishment," says Gernot Erler, foreign-policy spokesman for Germany's ruling Social Democrats. "If a German Chancellor were to take the country to war on reasons that turned out to be wrong, he would have no chance of being re-elected." Says David Mepham, head of the international program at the Institute for Public Policy Research in London: "I think I'm going to be depressed for the next four years. Bush is going to feel like he has a mandate to do whatever he wants."
Can it really be so grim? Is there any chance Bush can return to his first-term pledge to be "a uniter, not a divider," even across the ocean? The good news at least from Europe's viewpoint is that Bush's second-term program may be chastened by his first-term failures. As long as American forces are bogged down in Iraq, the chance of further military action against Iran or Syria becomes more remote. Faced with a need for continued help in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, Washington may become better at asking than commanding.
The centerpiece of Bush's international agenda will remain Iraq, where a bloody assault on Fallujah and other insurgent strongholds is expected soon, in hopes of paving the way for elections in January to choose a national assembly. If all goes well, the assembly will produce a constitution intended to progressively delegitimize the insurgents. Kerry was expected to request troops from Europe France and Germany in particular. But given the bad blood generated during his first term, Bush can't realistically expect more help from the allies Poland, Italy, Ukraine, Hungary and the Czech Republic have already indicated they'll cut back their troops next year. That lets European leaders off the hook in the short run, but leaves Iraq as they frankly expect to deteriorate further.
Other transatlantic logjams may stay stuck. European leaders, especially British Prime Minister Tony Blair, would like Bush to pursue the Middle East "road map" with vigor in a second term. And Bush has been telling people he intends to make a serious push for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. Based on his staunch support of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, most Europeans aren't expecting much. But a serious effort here might tempt some European critics to take a second look at Bush.