THE US presidential election is only 99 days away and it looks like being very close.
This might seem surprising, in the context of Mitt Romney's ongoing "gaffe an hour" tour of Europe and the Middle East, which has hardly enhanced his credentials as a potential world statesman. But they see things differently in the US, and Mr Romney is undoubtedly a credible candidate where it matters. Currently the polls have him if anything very slightly ahead of President Obama, although the President has a very marginal lead in the key swing states. Mr Obama's very strong popularity across Western Europe (he is less favoured in Eastern Europe) should not blind us to the fact that back home his grip on power is increasingly fragile.
As for Mr Romney, he is much mocked in Europe, but he is no Sarah Palin. When he stays away from foreign affairs, a lot of what he says seems perfectly sensible, and America's current economic woes make Mr Obama look weak in the very area where Mr Romney's considerably more right-wing policies will undoubtedly resonate with many Americans.
At this stage I'd be prepared to bet on a narrow Obama win, but the point is that Mr Romney is a serious and electable contender, and his current error-strewn sortie away from the comfort zone of domestic American politics should not detract from that.
The fact that Mr Romney could well be in the White House next year means that it is quite reasonable to inquire if he might be a possible threat to world peace. He could be.
My own view regarding his rhetoric about backing the Israelis "all the way" against Iran, even to the point of full-scale war, is that it is mainly designed to impress the considerable Jewish lobby back home rather than a considered foreign policy strategy. Even so: to endorse, in advance, any future decision by the Israelis to launch a unilateral strike on Iran does seem a bit reckless.
And his remarks about Jerusalem being the capital of Israel were either the result of poor advance preparation or – worse – a deliberate and provocative contradiction of the general international position, which is that West Jerusalem may be recognised as Israel's capital at the point when it is accepted that East Jerusalem is the capital of a Palestinian state.
Mr Romney's comments on foreign policy have too often seemed both confused and bellicose, and they inspire scant confidence in the man who could soon be the commander in chief of what is still the world's most formidable war machine. For example he appears unclear as whether it is Iran – "the greatest threat the world faces" – or Russia – "the Number One Foe of the US" – that is for him the ultimate enemy. Further, he has pledged support for Taiwan in any potential dispute with China, which is hardly the most diplomatic way to build relations with America's principal creditor.
Altogether it looks as if a Romney victory might carry us backwards to the dodgy days of President Bush, when our planet was a less safe and far more chancey place than it is now. But Mr Romney still has time to refine and rethink his foreign policy.
Meanwhile Mr Romney still deserves respect and, where possible, the benefit of the doubt. Much of the European commentary on his current trip to Britain, Israel and Poland has been at best condescending, at worst downright insolent. Whether it is his long-ago efforts as a Mormon missionary in France, or his perfectly reasonable scepticism about Britain's ability to run a proficient Olympics, he has found himself sneered at and mocked. I've even seen him described as a half-wit.I think it is perfectly valid to raise doubts about his various pronouncements on foreign affairs – as indeed I've just done – but at the same time I'm not convinced that the current condition of the UK gives anyone here the right to patronise this man as he has been patronised in the last few days.
His remarks about Britain's readiness for the Games might have been short on diplomacy, but he was speaking with the authority of someone who helped to organise a successful Winter Games. Prime Minister Cameron's puffed-up, peevish response to Mr Romney's mildly expressed doubts about our preparedness showed little judgment and zero class.
It's easy enough to cite the long rows of empty seats, the lost keys for Wembley Stadium, the ongoing transport shambles in much of London... but then these don't really matter, do they? After all, we could put on an opening ceremony that, according to the vainglorious Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, knocked Beijing's for six. It was also, by all accounts (I confess that I didn't watch it) pretty introspective and self-obsessed for such a supremely international event.
In Britain today there is too little realism about our rapidly declining status in the world. We seem insecure, too eager to trumpet whatever successes we may have.
We seize on the positives of a major event like the Olympics – and I don't deny that there are many positive – with a kind of desperate, immature relish, as if to reassure ourselves that we're still the tops, we can still knock everyone else for six. But we ain't, and we can't.
Mr Romney's ideas about foreign policy may well be confused and dangerous, but he is the potential leader of a great power. Our days of such power are long since gone. The only hope I can see is for the UK to break up and for the new, separate parts to start all over again.
Colette Douglas Home is away