Suzanne Nossel

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 US aims.

To remain at the helm of international affairs, the US will have to adapt its leadership style accordingly, recognising 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 for Iraq.

In the past 50 years, the number of people living under democratic rule has more than doubled. Having grown accustomed to democratic 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 sceptical scrutiny of big powers’ every moves.

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 fuelled by a sense it had been misled by a government that was allowing politics to interfere with investigation of the terror attack.

Up until last Thursday’s train bombings, Spanish voters had seemed willing to overlook outgoing PM José María 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 PM José 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 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 Schröder to ride to re-election 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.

As the Spanish backlash illustrates, alliances that rely solely on individual leaders and parties are frighteningly vulnerable, and are no substitute for acceptance of shared values and priorities across a society. Instead of trying to circumvent or override the role of democratic forces, the US should change its global leadership style to harness this powerful trend. — The Christian Science Monitor