Obama vs. Romney: the world is watching

Daniel Crump 

Image © Rivarix

Matters of foreign policy do not tend to be first on the list of a voter’s priorities coming up to an election, especially in times of economic turmoil. When US voters go to the polls in November they will be asking themselves when unemployment is going to fall, whether the health care system will continue to be of benefit to them and how much money they will have in their pockets once they retire. Perhaps, then, the sensible move on the part of the contenders is to downplay talk of foreign issues and concentrate on the economy.

However, history has taught us that many a presidency has come to be defined by a set of decisions related to manoeuvrings on the world stage. Kennedy’s record was arguably saved from the humiliation of the Bay of Pigs by his firmness during the Cuban Missile Crisis. What respect George Bush Sr. may have lost in failing to capture Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War, he made up for with his role in German Unification in the early 90’s.

Are we asking the right question?

In the run up to November’s vote, it is perhaps unhelpful to ask whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney would best serve the US’s interests on the world stage. The question people ought to be asking is whether a first term president is preferable to one in his second term. This is the case for two main reasons. Firstly, a President’s first term in office has always been more about dealing with the footprint left by the previous administration than about imposing his own foreign policy vision. Secondly, foreign policy is by nature reactionary. No matter how concise a doctrine exists at the outset, there are certain events that one can simply not prepare for.

To argue the first case, we need only go back four years when Obama officially inherited two wars from George Bush Jr. It was clear, despite his commendable desire to ease tensions with Iran, that his Middle Eastern policy was going to be dictated by how the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan played out. It is certainly no secret that Iranian involvement in the Iraq War was one of the biggest obstacles the President was going to have to overcome if peace between Tehran and Washington was reachable. U.S officials insist that the training of Militant Shiite groups in Iraq by Iranian forces has been a huge challenge for the US army. Iran is said to view Iraq as a potential buffer zone from any future invasion, most likely by the US’s main ally, Israel. Similarly, George Bush’s unavoidable presence in Afghanistan was always going to make Obama’s relationship with Islamabad one on permanent knife edge. 

The fact that foreign policy is by nature reactionary is also no great revelation. Unfounded conspiracy theories aside, the Bush Administration could no better predict the events of 9/11 any more than Roosevelt could have predicted the attack on Pearl Harbour. The US’s role in foreign wars tends to be sparked by unforeseen events. These events also tend to determine the strength of alliances. The Arab Spring, the foreign policy head scratcher of 2011, saw the US call for two former allies to step down in the name of democracy, when once they saw them as instigators of peace and regional stability.

This is not to say that Obama and Romney do not differ in their approach to foreign policy. The GOP candidate has expressed concern over Obama’s approach to China, refusing to press hard enough on human rights issues and the amount of US debt China currently holds. Mr Romney has also suggested branding Beijing a ‘currency manipulator’, sparking perhaps unnecessary tension with his fellow super power. There are also concerns that Obama’s baby steps towards neutrality over Israel and Palestine will be reversed by a Republican President.

Second time lucky?

A controversial theory in foreign policy, and one this article endorses, is that a Commander in Chief is less restrained in his second term than in his first and is therefore the sensible choice in terms of global peace and stability. One main feature of foreign policy, as opposed to domestic policy, is that it seems to transcend Republican/Democrat divides and becomes less about left and right wing philosophy and more about populism versus prudence. Bush Jr. went from the hawkish categorisation of the ‘Axis of Evil’, to complying with the wishes of the UN over Syria and Iran. Reagan also went from talks of ‘Evil Empire’ to forming a compromise with the Soviets over nuclear proliferation. In contrast, Clinton’s second term was arguably less ‘dovish’ than his first, with military missions in the former Yugoslavia, a region which desperately needed international interference.

Following on from this, one useful indication of a need for change in the Oval Office is whether a President has been allowed to successfully achieve his foreign policy goals. Despite sorry levels of global popularity, Bush was always the sensible choice in 2004 given the unfinished to-do list he had left in the Middle East. Where ever your political allegiances lie, in terms of Foreign Policy, an incumbent is always the safer pair of hands.

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