Spain's rebuff of the ruling Popular Party on Sunday was a slap
in the face to the Bush administration, and a potential setback for
US plans in Iraq and the fight against terror.
The upset is a wake-up call to US policymakers that democratic
influences on global politics are here to stay and can affect - even
thwart - US aims.
To remain at the helm of international affairs, the US will have
to adapt its leadership style accordingly, recognizing that foreign
peoples are increasingly steering their nations' foreign policies.
The Spanish turnabout is the latest example of a political shift
caused by the spread of democracy. Before the Iraq war, voters and
representatives in Turkey, Germany, and elsewhere, publicly
repudiated their leaders' efforts to accommodate American designs
In the past 50 years, the number of people living under
democratic rule has more than doubled. Having grown accustomed to
demo- cratic norms of free speech, deliberation, and the need for
restraints on power, citizens of democracies bring new standards to
evaluating the conduct of international affairs.
The period when foreign policy was viewed as the sacred purview
of heads of states, above and immune to politics, is past. Likewise,
the era of unchallenged superpower dominance over smaller countries
and subservient populations has given way to skeptical scrutiny of
big powers' every moves.
Democratic populations are demanding to be heard on matters of
international relations. They're ready to retaliate when either
local leaders - or foreign superpowers - turn a deaf ear.
While some may dismiss the Spanish vote as cowering in the face
of Al Qaeda, even the Bush administration has acknowledged that the
Spanish have not gone wobbly on terror. Rather, the Spanish public's
reversal was fueled by a sense it had been misled by a government
that was allowing politics to interfere with investigation of the
Up until last Thursday's train bombings, Spanish voters had
seemed willing to overlook outgoing Prime Minister Jose Maria
Aznar's highly unpopular support for the Iraq war. But when his
government appeared to hide information about Al Qaeda's role in the
attacks, something snapped.
Incoming Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has now
vowed to pull Spain's troops out of Iraq, rejecting a US-led mission
he describes as predicated on distortions.
Lately, democratic tides seem to work routinely against US
foreign policy. In the fall of 2002, after decades of encouraging
Turkish democracy, the US was left stranded by a Turkish Parliament
that - spurning billions of dollars in aid - put domestic political
opposition to the Iraq war above Washington's demand for military
basing rights. German democracy likewise played against President
Bush, allowing Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to ride to reelection on
a wave of anti-war sentiment. Similar dynamics were at play in
Mexico and Chile, where popular resistance to the war trumped fealty
to the superpower.
Democracy's influence on international relations will only
increase as liberalism spreads and wealthier, better-educated
peoples become more effective, aggressive advocates for their views. …