LONDON - When Prime Minister Tony Blair stood on the floor of the House of Commons yesterday, with the U.S. presidential election uppermost in everyone's mind, he took a moment to offer "warmest congratulations to President" - and then paused.
He smiled. And he added, "Karzai of Afghanistan."
The joke fell flat. Parliament members responded with barely a snicker, the kind of quiet found when an unaware speaker makes an off-color joke. The muted response spoke volumes, though: This was no time to joke about who would occupy the White House.
For Europeans as well as the Middle East and the rest of the world, the temperament of the American president, and his approach to foreign policy and his willingness or unwillingness to compromise with the United States' allies, is that important.
In President Bush's first four years, the power of his office has been clear throughout the world. From Europe's heads of government to the residents of Baghdad, the president has made himself felt in ways that affected day-to-day life.
The election of a second Bush administration was greeted yesterday by much of the world with anxiety and uncertainty.
"We can hope, but only the future will tell, that we will see him place importance on the revitalization of the trans-Atlantic alliance, which in my view is a prerequisite for global security," said Karsten D. Voigt, the coordinator of German-American cooperation in the German foreign ministry.
"We know that President Bush has strong convictions. I hope he will now combine that with wisdom to solve problems and that he will take into consideration the viewpoints of his allies and people in his own country who disagree with him," Voigt said.
If in the United States that sounds harsh, it might be because the decisions a U.S. president makes affect other parts of the world. An appreciation of the power of a U.S. president, whoever he is, in some ways is more keen abroad than at home.
The United States and its European allies, including Britain, clashed early in Bush's administration over human rights, the mechanics for trying accused war criminals and how to approach global warming.
But it was the disagreements over the approach to fighting terrorism and how to lessen the threat of weapons of mass destruction, and the disagreements over whether Iraq was part of that fight, that brought relations with France and Germany to a low point.
The importance of those disputes lies not in the tensions between the allies but in the absence of the power of a unified approach to solving the world's problems. The lack of a unified strategy to confront Saddam Hussein in Iraq contributed to the stubbornness of that war, and Europe and the United States still have no common approach to dealing with the growing nuclear threats of Iran and North Korea.
A resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Voigt said, is dependEnt on a common effort from the United States and Europe. Without it, the world suffers from terrorism, in part a residual element of the conflict. And the Palestinians and Israelis suffer.
While the United States has military might, Europe's inclusion would serve largely as a legitimizing factor, helping to alleviate passions against and U.S.-sanctioned proposals because of distrust of America within the Arab world.
"The future of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict looks very bleak if Bush comes back," said Hisham Ahmed, a professor of political science at Birzeit University in Ramallah, speaking shortly before Kerry conceded the election. "If we have four more years, oh my God."
Even some Israelis are leery of the United States, Israel's most important ally, because of fears the president will demand Israel make concessions to the Palestinians. "Israel wants to make progress toward a peace process, and it does not need pressure," Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom cautioned before the election.
If Bush chooses to put considerable energy into revitalizing European ties, and using that unity to approach such daunting problems as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he will do so while also balancing delicate relations with newer allies.
Sergei Rogov, director of the U.S.A and Canada Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said yesterday that relations between the Kremlin and the White House will depend on whether the administration relies more on diplomacy.
Relations between the two countries depend on the friendship between Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Rogov said. But that personal chemistry is a very shaky foundation. "We both give priority to the fight against terrorism and nonproliferation of nuclear weapons," he said. "But there are plenty of issues on which we disagree."
There are signs of strain in that relationship. After the hostage crisis in Beslan, Putin called for an end to the direct election of governors and for other reforms that critics considered anti-democratic. The White House expressed concern that Russia was drifting toward authoritarianism.
Relations are even harder to predict in other parts of the world, including China. There, the state-run media have consistently been critical of Bush's foreign policy as unilateralist, dating back to his rejection of the proposed Kyoto accord on global warming.
Beijing might have signaled its preference in the election with a critical commentary of Bush published Monday by the former foreign minister and vice prime minister, Qian Qichen, in the nation's top English-language paper, China Daily.
"The philosophy of the `Bush Doctrine' is in essence force," Qian wrote, characterizing the United States as increasingly isolated and threatened because of its "arrogance."
Sun staff writers Peter Hermann, Douglas Birch and Gady Epstein contributed to this article.