America - The European dream

Foreign policy - Hopes that Kerry, with his fluent French, will take a more multilateral approach, a

It is the first globalised US election. Non-voters of the world have united in their desperation to get rid of President Bush. In 30 out of 35 countries polled in a recent survey by the organisation Globescan, an overwhelming majority wanted John Kerry to win. Feeling was strongest in traditional US allies such as Germany and Norway. Only in Nigeria, the Philippines and Poland did a majority favour Bush.

The former French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine put it bluntly in Le Figaro on 16 October: "If the whole world was voting, John Kerry would be elected."

Yet according to Vedrine, a Kerry victory would make little difference, because American unilateralism was already resurgent under Bill Clinton. "It is pointless to dream of a multilateral America in the sense that Europeans today give to the word. Nor of a return to 'transatlantic values'," he wrote. Bush might be more overtly militaristic and ideologically driven, but to this way of thinking, all he has done is define and consolidate the identity America was already assuming as it forged its leadership in the post-cold war world.

Another French politician, Pierre Lellouche who - unlike Vedrine - has always been regarded as pro-American, writes: "I do not agree with the notion that the policies of George Bush are a temporary aberration. What's been happening in America for the past 15 years isn't neoconservatism but nationalism."

It was President Clinton, not President Bush, who spoke of America as the "essential nation". The concept of a "coalition of the willing" rather than a UN mandate was born in Kosovo, not Iraq. Transatlantic trade rows, fought out at the World Trade Organisation, were as fierce then as now. More than that, an increasing number of European thinkers point to the social divergence between America and Europe - they are becoming more God-fearing as we grow more secular; they believe in capital punishment while we think it's barbaric; they see owning guns as a human right and we see it as a sign of insanity. All of this plays into politics, and shows how difficult it would be for a Kerry administration to breach the gap between American voters and anxious bystanders elsewhere in the world.

John Kerry may speak fluent French and boast about his good relations with what Donald Rumsfeld called "Old Europe", but he is heading for an immediate clash with the countries which resisted the war in Iraq. He has told voters that, on assuming power, he would call a summit on Iraq and persuade European leaders to get more involved. As the kidnappings and murders of foreigners increase, and coalition forces fight an ever more bitter war, few European politicians are going to send their nationals to Iraq just to make a new American president happy.

"I don't believe that additional western European troops - French troops, German troops - will help to fix Iraq," said Joschka Fischer, the German foreign minister. "If America stays it will get worse, and if it leaves it will get worse."

In the Arab world, anti-Americanism extends far beyond Bush-bashing. Muslim intellectuals point to their own societies' praising of dictators and failure to modernise, but the less-educated majority simply watch the television, where they see Iraqis and Palestinians getting shot by Americans and Israelis.

It is hard to imagine how Kerry could invent a foreign policy so radical that those images would change.

When George W Bush told the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, that he would support the retention of major Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Kerry agreed with the policy. He has said that he would re-engage with the "peace process" - presumably the one that failed four years ago under President Clinton - but that would require talking to Yasser Arafat, which Kerry has said he would not countenance. It is entirely possible that, once in office, he would challenge the Israeli government, but there is nothing in Kerry's statements or voting record in the years before he became a presidential candidate which suggests any understanding of the Palestinians.

There would be some difference, the main one being style - and in diplomacy, style counts for something. Kerry would not have the brusque "you're with us or you're with the terrorists" approach favoured by Bush. Nor do his advisers have the same glint in their eye as Dick Cheney or Richard Perle, determined to impose US power through force. But some argue that the Bush doctrine has run its course - overstretched in Afghanistan and Iraq - and that in a second term he is unlikely to embark on militaristic adventures in Iran, Syria or other targeted countries. Bush might not be so bad, nor Kerry so good, as many Europeans predict.

Maybe the Europeans who are so keen to vote Bush out should think less about Washington and more about Brussels. Lellouche writes: "Relations with America will improve not if the Americans change, but if we Europeans change." Rather than whinge about how horrid Bush and his cohorts are, Europeans should accept US ideology and power and forge a real European identity and foreign policy as a counterbalance.

Then, at last, Europe could be a serious player in the Middle East and elsewhere, and force America to take it seriously. But that would be much more difficult than fantasising about casting our ballot in an election where we have no vote.

Lindsey Hilsum is diplomatic editor of Channel 4 News