Yesterday, the people of New Haven cast their ballots like millions across the country for local representatives to fix their city schools, property taxes and potholes. Next November, however, is not only a national, but in many ways an international election.
When Americans vote next year they will be electing a president who affects every person in the country, no matter what state he lives in or for whom she voted. However, the president Americans elect will also have a direct and often more profound effect on millions more who will not be allowed to vote at all in next November’s election: basically, everyone else in the world.
If America were truly serious about democracy it would allow the citizens of Iraq, for example, to vote for the president of the United States. The real decisions about Iraq will be made in the United States — and largely by its president — for years to come. If Iraqis could vote for president, there would likely be a more full explanation from the current U.S. administration about exactly how many Iraqis died in the war, how the contracts for rebuilding Iraq and drilling its oil are being awarded, and how a plan would be implemented to ensure the electricity stays on and the water running.
Under such an idea of democracy, however, the list of countries whose citizens should be able to vote for president extends well beyond Iraq. The United States has a military presence in approximately 140 countries around the world. It decides if and how AIDS drugs will be administered in Africa. It pushes for the privatization of energy in India while shaping land reform in Tajikistan. America’s “War on Drugs” fills prison cells in Bolivia and Colombia. U.S. government-subsidized corn and cotton flood the world market, impoverishing farmers from Mexico to Egypt. America forces university funding to be cut in Nicaragua just as it determines whether Thailand or Argentina will get further loans or default on their debt. The U.S. Army holds the peace in Kosovo, helps fight off insurgents in the Philippines, and is the final word in Kabul. The president has the ability to shape all these policies. In short, his or her power over non-Americans is dramatic and sweeping.
Of course, having almost everyone in the world vote for president is both practically infeasible and, in the end, undesirable for everyone involved. Such a hypothetical political system, however, graphically illustrates that power on a global scale is concentrated too much in a president un-elected by and unaccountable to the people he often affects most. Although much of America’s influence on the world may be beneficial, not all of it is, and certainly ordinary people around the world have no way of holding this power in check.
Even if Indonesians or Brazilians will not be voting in the presidential election next November, in many ways you are voting for them. As you cast your ballot, take into consideration not only which candidate shares your views with regard to taxes, welfare or abortion, but also which candidate will be the best president for all those in the world who cannot vote. In imagining all those who you are voting for, you will quickly find yourself in a very crowded voting booth indeed. Since America makes up about one-twentieth of the world’s population, your vote next presidential election counts not only for yourself, but for about 19 others around the world who will have no say in who is elected president.
It is not always clear that one presidential candidate would garner all 19 of these votes. One candidate, for example, might have a good policy toward Africa, but not Latin America while another might have a solid policy on human rights, but not international trade. Indeed, you may find that your own interests sometimes compete with those of others in the world. One candidate’s trade position, for example, might have the implication of a factory closing down in your home town and moving with its jobs to another part of the world. It is your job to balance these competing interests as best you can.
This is not the democratic system that America’s founders envisioned. However, until the world’s political dynamics dramatically change it is the situation in which we find ourselves. So, remember, next November, your vote counts for 20.
Nick Robinson is a first year student at Yale Law School.