Surprisingly, they have a lot in common.
Starting from the beginning of the 14th century, Polish kings were elected; originally by a narrow group of aristocrats. Gradually that system, which lasted almost 500 years, evolved into a general election in which every hereditary noble voted. Selection of candidates – and the elections themselves – were just as messy, and brought equally mixed results, as presidential elections in the U.S. There was one meaningful difference: Poles encouraged foreigners to run, and elected some.
A Lithuanian duke, Jogaila, was elected a Polish king, known as Władysław Jagiełło. At that time, Lithuania was emerging as a regional power going into many minor violent confrontations with Poland. Teutonic Knights threatened both countries. This was a prevailing factor in giving Jogaila the Polish throne. It was the beginning of the end of the Teutonic Knights’ power. Jagiełło turned out to be one of the best Polish rulers, and some Lithuanians to this day hold a grudge against Poles for luring away one of their best sons.
Stefan Batory, a Hungarian and a ruler of Transylvania, was elected a Polish king largely for his military talents. During his relatively short 10-year-reign, he not only lived up to this expectation, but also strengthened the country both economically and politically. Poles revere him as one of their best kings, despite the fact that he never learned to speak Polish. He communicated in Latin. (Just a thought for those Americans who stress the importance of immigrants learning English.)
Poles did not have much luck when electing Swedes and Germans as their kings. For the record, some native sons became Polish kings as well, including one from the Ukrainian minority. A Frenchman, Henry of Valois, elected a Polish king, secretly left his new kingdom just three months after coronation to become king of France. Many wondered over his decision, as, at that time, being king of a prosperous Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was a much bigger deal than being king of an impoverished France. Some believe that Henry was disappointed after being asked to sign, in today’s terms, a job contract defining the king’s role not as an absolute ruler, but as a CEO serving the nation.
It appears that in the upcoming presidential election, most Americans will be voting not for the candidate they prefer the most, but for the candidate they dislike the least. Even knowing that it is unlikely to happen, it is still intriguing to speculate on what could happen if Americans allowed foreigners to run for President.
Tony Blair would be the most obvious candidate: he has proven himself as the leader of a major country. Coming from a nation closely allied with the U.S., he is already deeply involved in the Middle Eastern mess, and he was clever enough to have already started pulling British forces from Iraq. This indicates that, as President, he would get us out of Iraq as soon as achievable, and with as little humiliation as possible. It is not as well known that Tony Blair reformed UK immigration policy by managing increased legal immigration and keeping illegal immigration at about 0.7% of the population (compared to at least 4% in the U.S.). We need someone who can do the same here. Additionally, Tony Blair worked on reforming the government-run National Health Service by promoting the increased role of the private sector. In the U.S., we might need some government involvement in reforming our privately run health care system. Tony Blair sounds like the most qualified man for this job, as well. The French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, commented on Tony Blair: “He is intelligent, he is brave and he is a friend. We need him in Europe.” We need him too. Americans would love Tony’s wit, and he would make a great President.
If electing a Briton as an American President seems as too much of an irony, Vicente Fox is another option. First, his father was an American citizen, which can lift some formal obstacles. He is an American in spirit, rising by his own work and talents to the top position in the Coca-Cola Company, and then to the president of a major country. With his Latino roots, he knows better than most American politicians do how to turn around, once and forever, traditionally jagged relationships between the U.S. and Latin America. If there are any buttons that an American President could push in order to speed up the transformation of Mexico into a first world country, Vicente Fox knows best how to do it. By electing him as their President, Americans would send a strong message to Latin America that they have overcome the petty disagreements of the past, and look forward to their joint future. With the growing powers of China and India, and a renewed Europe, the U.S. cannot maintain its dominant position for long with its present size. Many Americans see the proximity of vast poverty in Latin America as a threat to the stability of the U.S. However, huge reserves of cheap labor and rich natural resources, when intelligently married to the technologies and capital available in the U.S., can strengthen “el Norte” and lift out of poverty the rest. Vicente Fox has the credentials to do it right. His election would be less about the next four years; it would be about the next forty years.
A Polish economist, Leszek Balcerowicz, is another option. His “shock therapy” converted the completely disintegrated Polish economy of the socialist era into a halfway decent market driven system. Balcerowicz grew up and received his education in a socialist country, but gradually matured to understand and value the benefits of the free market. Americans spent a fortune to protect their country from invasion by communists, but at the same left wide open the back door of human compassion for all sorts of socialist ideas. Socialism did not work anywhere in the world, and it would not work in the U.S., either. Balcerowicz would shock Americans by revealing to them the socialist concepts injected into their political system. Under Balcerowicz, it would be “back to the basics,” just as the Founding Fathers meant it. In this sense, Balcerowicz would be much more American than many self-proclaimed American patriots, whose lips and tongues are swollen from high-pitch nationalistic rhetoric.
When talking about allowing foreigners to run for President, Americans might look to the roughly 13% of foreign-born Americans as well, who presently are not eligible to become President. That number might be as high as 17% if we include illegal immigrants who would gladly legalize their presence here, if they only could. It is at least worth mentioning that almost every sixth American is deprived the right of becoming President of his or her own country. If this changes, then I am running as well.
A version of this text was published by Arizona Republic on September 14, 2008