There are just a few days left until America chooses its next president. The debates are over, and there is unlikely to be any dramatic changes between now and November 6. So what conclusions can we draw, after the third and final debate on foreign policy, on how the top of the US government is thinking in regard to America’s role in the world?
Foreign policy has never been the focus of presidential elections in the United States. Americans tend to vote with their checkbook and their confidence in the future: jobs, income, etc. As such, candidates tend to highlight international issues that have a direct bearing on these more pressing concerns.
Nevertheless, it’s clear in this election that the US world outlook has become narrower than usual. In their third and final debate, devoted entirely to foreign policy, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney spoke about concrete issues, the overwhelming majority of which involved the Middle East. In one respect, this is logical. The fundamental changes underway in the region will influence both America’s Mideast policy and its attitude to global processes as a whole. This explains the debate’s focus on the merits of the US intervention in Libya, the proper approach to Syria, the meaning of the Arab Spring, how to deal with Iran and how to ensure the safety of Israel. These are not local but rather conceptual issues. Although the opponents sharply criticized each other at the rhetorical level, there is essentially no difference between them. The current administration has assumed a cautious and mostly reactive posture. And while the Republican challenger has denounced this approach, he has not offered any meaningful alternative.
The candidates act like vast swathes of the world simply don’t exist. China is mentioned only in terms of the manufacturing jobs the United States is losing to it. Their concerns are understandable, but a country that wishes to preserve its global supremacy can’t afford such a cramped perspective. America’s pivot to Asia, announced in Obama’s first term, was certainly logical, but it’s unclear what this means in practical terms. Since 2008, Obama has been talking about the changing world, saying that America should develop new relations with emerging centers of power and influence and that America must maintain its leadership role through different means, because hegemony is no longer acceptable. However, he has not said what practical steps should be taken to achieve these goals. Obama has a clearer vision of the 21st century world than many, but his first term has not convinced anyone that he knows how America should navigate this new reality.
Romney believes that America can return to the same means that brought the country to the pinnacle of global power 25 years ago. As long as he’s just a candidate, he does not have to worry about how to actually apply the methods of Ronald Reagan in the 2010s. He can blabber all he likes about labeling China a “currency manipulator” and indicting the Iranian president under the UN genocide convention, because this is unlikely to result in political action. A relevant example is the transformation of George W. Bush, whose China policy went from highly aggressive in his first term to one of the most positive among US presidents by the end of his second term.
Russia did not feature prominently in the foreign policy debate. And the closer to election day, the less frequently it has been mentioned. Obama generally brings up Russia in the context of the New START arms reduction treaty and sanctions against Iran, while Romney caused quite a stir by calling Russia “our number one geopolitical foe.” But this is just Republican boilerplate used to disguise the lack of a clear stance on Russia. Fortunately for Romney, few Americans care what the candidates think about Russia. If the Republican challenger wins, his administration’s real Russia policy will emerge long after election day. This again brings to mind President Bush, who started his first term saying essentially that Moscow doesn’t matter. His lack of a sound policy toward Russia cost everyone dearly, and by the time America decided that Russia should be taken seriously, bilateral relations were at their lowest point in decades.
The general takeaway from the foreign policy component of the US presidential election is that neither candidate has offered a clear vision of the global situation or a corresponding strategy. Instead, they have focused on practical aspects of foreign policy, possibly because they don’t want to peer into the murky future.