The pundits have now weighed in mightily in interpreting the US presidential election. Did the outcome -- together with Republican gains in the Congress -- represent an endorsement of President George W. Bush's positions? Has the American electorate swung to the right? Are Americans now more concerned about "values?"
Like price in economics, a single electoral choice compresses a lot of information. It is a summary of whether, taking everything into account, a citizen prefers one candidate to another. A host of surveys is required to figure out what it really means, for the US -- and for the world.
This much is clear, however: there is little confidence in Bush's economic policies. The typical American family knows that it is worse off today than it was four years ago, and appears unconvinced that the tax cuts targeted at upper-income Americans brought the benefits heralded by the Bush administration.
But while Bush was not held back four years ago by the lack of a popular mandate in pushing his agenda, he may be emboldened by the seeming ringing endorsement to push even harder -- such as making the tax cuts permanent and partially privatizing social security. If adopted, these measures will further compound America's fiscal mess.
To the rest of the world, these are America's problems. Yes, the soaring deficits may contribute somewhat to international financial instability. Real interest rates may rise, as the US borrows more and more. If declining confidence in US fiscal policy leads to a weaker dollar, Europe and Asia may find it more difficult to export, and if the deficits prove a drag on the American economy, global growth may stall.
But for much of the rest of the world, the real concern is American unilateralism. An interconnected world needs cooperation and collective action. Historically, the US has exercised enormous leadership in a world committed to the proposition that no state should dictate collective decisions. Unfortunately, over the past four years, the US president has lost the credibility necessary to exercise that leadership. Even if the 59 million votes cast for Bush represented a ringing endorsement of his Iraq policy, it would not restore the US' international credibility.
I believe most Americans reject Bush's unilateralism no less than his administration's economic policies. Before the invasion of Iraq, they wanted the US to go to the UN, and today they recognize that the US alone cannot maintain order in the Middle East. Even if Iraq is to bear more of the cost of its own reconstruction, there will have to be debt forgiveness, and this too requires international cooperation.
Those who voted for Bush may not be as outraged by American involvement in torture, or the misleading information about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and connections with al-Qaeda, as those abroad. But they do not want America alone to shoulder the burdens of international peace, and they are gradually coming to the realization that leadership and cooperation do not come automatically, simply because the US is the only superpower.
Some worry whether Bush will use his electoral mandate to engage in more ventures. As he himself put it, "I earned capital in the campaign ... and now I intend to spend it."
Had the Iraq venture been more successful, these worries would have been justified. There is little secret that there were discussions concerning Iran.