Two and a half weeks ago, as news of President Bush's reelection whizzed around the globe, my brother in England dashed off an e-mail to me. "The world is going to be a warmer place," he quipped, "but much more uncomfortable." Never mind whether Rob is right in thinking that Bush's policies will increase global warming and warfare; what his shorthand reflected was a widely held view that the outcome of the American election would affect not just Americans but the rest of the world -- and that he therefore had a stake in it.
It is a short step from that belief to the conviction that, as long as the United States remains the world's sole superpower, Americans' business is anybody's business. Not surprisingly, that concept has flourished, both before and after the election, in the borderless universe of the Internet, where there has never been much respect for the conventions of state sovereignty -- and where more than one online "election" made Sen. John Kerry the occupant of the Oval Office. But it is an idea that has also taken root with some ivory-tower academics, who argue that creating a democratic global forum of elected representatives, which would offer people beyond America's borders a direct way to influence world affairs, might be the first step in bridging the psychological divide that the U.S. president himself set up between those who are "for us" and those who are "against us."
Such impulses, which range from the irresponsible to the intriguing, are the natural responses to the twin tugs of unilateralism and globalization. Not only has the United States shown its willingness to act unilaterally in a way that has impact far beyond its frontiers, but the process of globalization has changed the relationship between individual and state on which our Western electoral systems are based: Gone is the straightforward global classification system of the early 20th century in which, as a 1930 Hague treaty stated, "Every person should have a nationality and should have one nationality only"; gone too is the simple mathematical fairness of one (wo)man, one vote. We're mobile and intermarried; many of us hold multiple citizenships. It all makes us ready to meddle in more than one country's affairs.
Perhaps it is less surprising to see non-Americans wanting to have a say in American elections when you realize that increasing numbers of Americans are having their say in other countries' elections. These days, some Americans are voting twice -- once in the United States and once in their country of origin. Earlier this month, the Iraqi electoral commission announced that it would allow members of the 2 million- to 3 million-strong expatriate community, a number of whom live in the United States and hold U.S. citizenship, to vote in January's elections.
And Americans don't always stop at the polling booth: Several Iraqi Americans were appointed last summer to senior positions in Iraq's interim government; in 1998 Valdas Adamkus, then a U.S. citizen, became Lithuania's president; and one of the most controversial issues for Afghanistan's constitutional loya jirga last winter was whether to allow dual nationals (such as naturalized Americans) to hold senior cabinet posts.
It was a 1967 Supreme Court decision that made dual voting possible for Americans with dual citizenship. After the State Department refused to renew Beys Afroyim's passport on the grounds that he had lost his U.S. citizenship by voting in a 1951 Israeli election, the Polish-born Israeli American sued. In Afroyim v. Rusk, the court ruled in the naturalized citizen's favor, invalidating a section of the Immigration and Nationality Act that had mandated the loss of U.S. citizenship for voting in a foreign election. Afroyim blazed a trail that will surely be followed more frequently, now that 90 percent of immigrants to the United States come from countries that permit some form of multiple citizenship.
Political candidates from such places as Mexico, El Salvador and Taiwan are taking advantage of this trend, campaigning in the United States for the votes of immigrants -- including naturalized Americans -- who still care about the political process in countries they have left behind physically, if not yet emotionally. During Mexico's 2000 presidential election, two years after the country had begun accepting dual citizenship, polling stations were set up close to the border, and people flocked back into Mexico to vote.
By their next presidential election in 2006, if an amendment currently under review by Mexico's congress goes through, Mexican Americans may be able to vote without having to leave the United States, as Dominican Americans, for example, now can. More than 50,000 Dominican immigrants to the United States, many of them American citizens, are registered to vote in the Dominican Republic. Last May, they were able to do so for the first time in their adopted homeland, forming long lines at the 16 polling booths set up in New York alone.
As a dual citizen of the United States and Great Britain, I voted in the American elections on Nov. 2 near my home in Baltimore, and I have just downloaded the form to register to vote in Britain's parliamentary elections next year. Here I am, like an increasing number of people in today's world, divided between two countries, and with double the number of votes.
In that light, an Internet project set up by several Dutch citizens seems a little less preposterous. A year ago, the group launched a Web site, www.theworldvotes.org, where people from the world over could log in and cast a symbolic vote in a mock U.S. presidential election. Perhaps not surprisingly, since the preponderance of voters were Western Europeans, the result went heavily in Kerry's favor (by 81.6 percent to Bush's 6.2 percent). "From the beginning, we knew that G. W. Bush wouldn't be the winner on this Web site," Wiebe de Jager, the co-founder, told me in an e-mail. "But the site wasn't meant to be an anti-Bush platform."
The goal, de Jager said, was simply to trigger an international debate. What has been surprising, he said, is how offended some Americans were by their project. "Give us all a break from this wave of out-in-space insanity and keep your nutty mess out of our country," wrote one. Other Americans, of course, have taken a different tack, as the "Sorry Everybody" Web site gallery (126.96.36.199/gallery/1/) shows. Hundreds of doleful Democrats are pictured there holding up apologetic signs. "Dear World," reads a typical message. "I'm sorry!!! I've been sick about this since November 3rd. There ARE Americans who believe we are a PART of this world, not running it."
It was a desire to play a part in the American election -- and thus world events -- that led editors from G2, the daily features section of London's left-leaning Guardian newspaper, to mount an actual bid to influence the results. Dreamed up in a London pub, the prank was the work of people who claim that a Bushless world would be a better world. Rather than launching their views into the ether and praying, the editors invited readers to send handwritten pro-Kerry pleas to 14,000 residents registered as independents in a single county in one swing state: Clark County, Ohio. Reminding letter-writers that the United States' own Declaration of Independence speaks of paying "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind," the stunt mixed tongue-in-cheek trouble-making with save-the-world sanctimoniousness.
Thousands apparently followed though, though the jape appears to have backfired spectacularly: In 2000, Democratic hopeful Al Gore won Clark Country by 324 votes; this year, Bush won by more than 1,500 votes -- and outraged Americans deluged the newspaper with e-mails telling the Old World letter-writers to please be so kind as to mind their own borders.
What's interesting about the editors' escapade is not the gambit itself, but the emotions that provoked it. People act out when they feel left out. The reverse just wouldn't happen: Can you imagine Americans sending letters to Dutch voters? No, because the United States has no trouble making its voice heard on almost any matter, large or small.
Arguing that the struggle against American unilateralism will gain strength unless the disaffected (and, they would say, disenfranchised) find ways to have their voices heard, professors Richard A. Falk of the University of California and Andrew Strauss of Widener University, in Delaware, have come up with a concept that they hope would enable people to participate directly in the world political process, regardless of where they live -- "a citizen-elected Global Parliamentary Assembly."
The two professors of international law model their proposed GPA on the European Parliament -- a body whose very existence I know my own English, Scottish and Welsh grandparents would have dismissed with harrumphs. Though the European Parliament started out as a largely advisory group, its role as the direct representative of the European citizenry has created a steady march toward empowerment, which my family now fully accepts. Over time, the parliament has gained budgetary responsibilities as well as some legislative powers. Under the proposed new treaty establishing a European Constitution, which was signed at the end of October but has yet to be ratified, the parliament's powers would be further enhanced. Might a global body of elected representatives follow the same trajectory?
Although democracies succeed by giving the alienated a voice, nobody is suggesting that an e-vote from his nomadic laptop would quell Osama bin Laden's virulent hostility to all things American. The solution to Islamic extremism is more than a click away. But I did wonder how my brother would have felt if he had had some way of registering his views before November's election. When I telephoned him, Rob reminded me that, more than a decade ago, our father, a great admirer of America, had pointed out the irony inherent in a situation where the president of the world's greatest democracy exercises so much power internationally and so few people have a say in choosing him. "Dad's point is more relevant now than it was then," he said.
While the Guardian's polling ploy got the impatient brush-off from Americans that he thought it deserved, Rob told me that what troubles him and some of his friends is the sense that you can't be a critical friend of America anymore; you have to be either for America or against it. Rob doesn't think he has the right to choose America's leader any more than Australia's or Azerbaijan's (just imagine -- every day could be election day!), but he said he knows plenty of people who feel frustrated because they can't see how they can get their concerns across -- and not just about terrorism but about universal problems such as global warming, which British Prime Minister Tony Blair has described as one of the gravest threats we all face. Which is why the two of us finished our transatlantic chat by speculating about some sort of global democratic forum.
If there seems to be something slightly seditious, or just plain ridiculous, about two representatives of the Old World entertaining such a revolutionary idea (me over my cup of Earl Grey tea in America and my brother over his glass of California wine in England), let me remind you of a little New World history: The United States started out as an experiment in democracy, offering an alternative system that gave voice to the disaffected. To begin with, the British weren't terribly enthusiastic about the whole project. It gained legitimacy, though, by exercising democratic principles. And, oh, what an overpowering success it has proved to be.