WASHINGTON—As domestic issues dominate the 2012 presidential contest, foreign policy conduct has had to take a back seat. But analysts want to know what either a Romney administration or a second Obama term could look like, and how it might influence the world stage.
On May 25, the Brookings Institution held a discussion on America’s role in the world that addressed critical issues facing the next president. Brookings experts Bruce Jones, Strobe Talbott, and Homi Kharas prepared thoughtful papers on what the foreign relations priorities will be of the president who takes office in January 2013.
In recent days, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has thrown a few jabs at President Barack Obama’s handling of Iran, Afghanistan, Russia, China, and Israel. The president, meanwhile, has touted his foreign policy successes: attacks on al-Qaeda in Pakistan, drone attacks on terrorists in Pakistan and Yemen, the administration’s “pivot” from the Middle East focus to Southeast Asia, and the signing of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia in April 2010.
But predicting the decisions of a Romney administration or even the contours of a second Obama term is a real challenge for foreign policy experts. The heated rhetoric of the campaigns and the expected barrage of negative advertising don’t make it any easier.
Bruce Jones, co-author of the paper prepared for the event, pointed to the doctrine of American exceptionalism as a place to begin the comparison. Republicans charge that Obama does not believe as much as they do that America has been called upon to provide special leadership in world.
Mitt Romney has blasted Obama for what he said was “apologizing for America.”
Jones mentioned a news conference in April 4, 2009, when President Obama said America had the largest economy in the world, a military unmatched by none, and a core set of values enshrined in the Constitution and democratic practices that he regarded as “exceptional.”
“I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world toward peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent, depends on our ability to create partnerships.”
Obama’s statement was an endorsement of multilateralism, a doctrine that Democratic presidents have embraced more easily than Republican ones.
Kharas said there is a middle ground on this issue that removes it from controversy.
“The global economy and international financial system depend on the fact that the U.S. dollar is the unrivaled international reserve currency and global store of value, and the open global trading and foreign investment system is preserved by the unrivaled superiority of the U.S. military,” Kharas said.
The U.S. dominance economically and militarily will remain for decades, making America “exceptional” at least in these two regards, Kharas writes.
Obama’s Foreign Policy Shift
Candidate Obama and, early in his term, President Obama stressed forging partnerships with friends and adversaries based on mutual interests. But multilateralism can only go so far when others are unwilling to cooperate.
“Arguably the greatest foreign policy successes of the ensuing three years—the deaths of Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki and the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi—rested not on American soft power but on the uses of hard power, applied unilaterally in two of the three cases,” Jones writes.
By the early months of 2011, Obama’s goal of engagement with adversaries had shifted. We see the president placing much more reliance on the threat of force and sanctions to get compliance in Iran and North Korea. Obama sought sweeping and severe sanctions on Iran upon the discovery of a secret nuclear facility in Qom, Iran’s refusal to negotiate, and the regime’s crackdown on the Green Revolution, Jones says.
China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea, and the harassing U.S. naval vessels on a surveillance mission, led the Obama administration to shift its focus from the Middle East to Asia in the winter of 2011. The United States announced that marines on rotation would operate from a base in Darwin, Australia.
Obama was probably responsible, perhaps with Israeli collusion, for the Stuxnet computer virus and assassination of Iranian scientists that disrupted and delayed Iran’s nuclear program.
Obama’s foreign policy has matured from when he was a candidate. He shows greater willingness to use America’s military reach and preemptive policies.
“Thus Obama sent troops into Pakistan without permission, in violation of Pakistani sovereignty, to conduct the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. He agreed to the assassination of al-Awlaki, an American citizen and al Qaeda operative, in Yemen,” Jones writes.
Romney More Hawkish
The character of a Romney administration foreign policy can likely be inferred from the criticisms he has made of Obama’s policies and the people from whom he takes advice. For instance, Romney has adopted an aggressive tone and deemphasizes negotiations with autocratic regimes. He called for defeating the Taliban and blasted Obama for not imposing stronger sanctions on Iran.
Ari Berman writes May 21 in the Nation:
“Of Romney’s forty identified foreign policy advisers, more than 70 percent worked for [George W.] Bush. Many hail from the neoconservative wing of the party, were enthusiastic backers of the Iraq War and are proponents of a U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran.”
Romney has surrounded himself with many neoconservatives, including John Bolton, who was a recess appointment for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, April 2005 to December 2006, and currently a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
The neoconservatives were responsible for persuading George W. Bush to topple Saddam Hussein, which led to the war in Iraq.
Bolton wrote in the Washington Post, July 2, 2009, “Only those most theologically committed to negotiation still believe Iran will fully renounce its nuclear program. … Since there is no likelihood that diplomacy will start or finish in time, or even progress far enough to make any real difference, there is no point waiting for negotiations to play out.”
On June 4 in the Washington Times, Bolton mocked the negotiations with Iran, and said the Iranians were stalling for time and being disingenuous. He said that an Israeli strike is the reality that the United States doesn’t want to face.
Romney has called for increasing the number of warships the Navy builds per year from nine to fifteen (five more than the service requested in its 2012 budget), and increasing the size of the military by 100,000 troops.
He opposed Obama setting the date of the end of 2014 when all combat troops leave Afghanistan. Romney would defer the exit timetable to his military commanders, according to Politico.
Colin Powell, former four-star army general, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and secretary of state said May 23 on MSNBC that some of Romney’s foreign policy advisers are “quite far to the Right.” He chided Romney for saying that Russia was the “No. 1 geopolitical foe” of the United States.
Strobe Talbott said it’s urgent that the president, whoever that will be, address climate change, which he regards as the “most dangerous issue of these times.”
Obama in his victory speech in Grant Park in 2008, and in his inaugural address, spoke of rescuing a “planet in peril,” and he vowed to work toward cooperative solutions to climate change. In 2009 he stopped the Copenhagen conference on climate change from becoming a total debacle, and, back home, he’s pushed hard for cap-and-trade legislation, Talbott writes.
Talbott hopes that a President Romney would also address the issue. When he was Massachusetts governor, Romney imposed mandatory carbon emission limits on power plants.
“‘Drill, baby, drill’ would not advance the UN-sponsored global climate talks,” writes Kharas.
It’s reasonable to think that achieving global climate agreements would look very different depending on the 2012 election outcome.
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