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Looking Abroad: Why Seemingly Minor Elections Matter

[A version of this article was originally published in Social Science Space]

by Christopher Shay

In Monday’s U.S. presidential debate on foreign policy, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama exchanged zingers. They bristled, smirked, and wagged their fingers at each other, but the real takeaway of the night was that the candidates basically agree with each other. When the most glaring disagreement was whose tour of Israel was better, it’s clear that no matter who wins, U.S. foreign policy will stay the course. The United States will still be Israel’s ally; it will still rely on drone attacks; and it will continue to pressure Iran with economic sanctions. From a world policy standpoint, the exciting election action is abroad.

This year, we’re watching an "unprecedented tsunami of elections." Some 82 nations have some sort of national election, and two dozen countries have already or will soon choose a new president, as World Policy Journal Editor David Andelman pointed out. Already, the dynamics are shifting. As countries across the world rise in prominence, and the U.S. role as global enforcer wanes, these elections around the world are increasingly important.

Take Georgia. This month Mikheil Saakashvili made the most important move of his career—he stepped down. Saakashvili, once a darling of the West, clashed with Russia in 2008 over the breakaway states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. He also concentrated power in his hands after splintering the country’s opposition groups. But in a stunning electoral victory, eccentric billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili defeated Saakashvili, and Saakashvili became the country’s opposition leader. Now, Ivanishvili promises to make Russia—and no longer the U.S. or the EU—Georgia’s most important strategic ally. Still, the peaceful transfer of power signals a functioning democracy—something that many analysts had doubted.

This surprising election defeat changes the whole dynamic of the region. Armenia and Azerbaijan have been fighting off and on for decades over the disputed area of Nagorno-Karabakh. Both countries are importing small arms from the Ukraine, and tensions remain high. Yet if war breaks out, Azerbaijan can invoke a mutual assistance pact with Russia, and the easiest way for Russian forces to reach Azerbaijan is through Georgia. Under Saakashvili, this could’ve been cataclysmic—perhaps under Russia-leaning Ivanishvili, not so much.

The point with this example is that as the United States can impose its will less and less, these seemingly minor elections become crucial. The United States—whether headed by Romney or Obama—has very little influence in these matters. Analysts often repeat what should be obvious. We live in a “non-polar” world. Instead of the “bi-polar” world of the Soviet Union and the United States or a “uni-polar” era of American hegemony, we have an incredible complex, ever-changing world of shifting alliances. We live in spikey world, where local influence can quickly rise and fall. With regional dynamics more important than ever, the election of a single global leader can transform a region. A new president can pivot a state from relying on one power to another, tipping the balance of power in the region.

Elections are also often stress tests for new governments. For Arab Spring countries, the elections revealed the local politics and power plays of the region that will shape their countries. The most important test for Afghanistan will be its national election in 2014. Setting up the infrastructure and security strategies needs to be one of the country’s top priorities right now. American troops will be largely gone, and ensuring a free and at least moderately fair election will be no easy task. Who comes to power and whether it’s viewed as legitimate will shape the future of the country.

In Iran, the clearest path to reform is through the office of the president—Iran’s president, not the United States’. With Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the way out, the world needs to watch who will be allowed to run for president in Iran. Behind the Ayatollah, the president is second most powerful person in the country. With the last faulty election having sparked an uprising and the country facing a financial crisis, maybe—just maybe—the mullahs will be wary of intervening too much. This would give a chance for a reformer to get elected, change the foreign policy of Iran, and transform the politics of the region.

In the foreign policy debate, Obama was still correct to call the United States an “indispensable nation”—a phrase coined by former World Policy Journal editor James Chace. Americans—with their adoration of the entrepreneur, top universities, and culture industry—are well placed in this new non-polar landscape. Still, the United States is no longer the world’s top cop, able to compel countries to abide by international norms. Regional alliances, like the Gulf Cooperation Council or East African Community, and impromptu coalitions of the willing will be of greater importance. Paying close attention to the world’s other elections is key to predicting where the world is heading, certainly much more so than the banal display from Romney and Obama.

*****

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Christopher Shay is managing editor of World Policy Journal.

[Photo courtesy of  Rosa Trieu/Neon Tommy]

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