US Power: Both Candidates Will be Constrained by the Same Strategic Choices

Retrenchment will be the dominating theme for US foreign policy whoever wins the presidential elections on 6 November. The next president will face a protectionist Congress; a military undergoing huge defence cuts; and a public opinion that has lost interest in foreign affairs and feels that nation-building should begin at home.

The American election debate is certainly impassioned. The political system has been in gridlock for two years. The two main parties are divided over the reform of healthcare and the reduction of the deficit, but they are not divided that much by foreign policy. Even the two candidates have very similar dispositions. Both are men of above average intelligence, from similar educational backgrounds; both are mild-mannered, thoughtful individuals who take time to reach a decision, and are not inclined to shoot from the hip. Both are family men who have made few friends in politics outside their immediate circle. If elected president, Mitt Romney would probably 'bond' with as few international leaders as has Barack Obama (who numbers only David Cameron - and that very recently - as a political leader that he finds it easy to deal with).

On the substantive issues the two leaders take very similar positions. Let me mention just five.

1.            American Exceptionalism

American exceptionalism has taken an ugly twist of late. It has become the angry refuge of an America that wants to deny the real state of the world and its place in it.  Behind the claim lies anger as the country's relative decline has become more manifest in stagnant or falling incomes, imploding markets, massive debt and diminishing expectations of the future. Americans are more depressed about that future than ever, with only 47 per cent believing their homes are worth more than their mortgages, and with unemployment persistently high (above 8 per cent for the last 43 months). The idea of their own exceptionalism sustained Americans throughout the Cold War and into the 1990s, but how exceptional can a country be when it spends so exorbitantly on the 'War on Terror' - an astonishing $6.6 m for every dollar Al-Qa'ida spent on the World Trade Centre attack.  By 2020 its debt may be three times larger than the US economy (and require 20 per cent of tax revenue per year simply to service it). But as Andrew Bacevich avers, nothing in Obama's record suggests that he has broken with the political class he represents, and its aspirations towards asserting American global leadership in the face of rapidly diminishing resources. Romney is a paid-up member of that establishment too. Both men are unapologetic believers in the greatness of America, neither believes in America's decline. Despite Romney's claim that Obama wants to 'manage it', almost as an international 'public good', the truth is that he doesn't. Both men believe as Hillary Clinton claimed in a speech to the Naval Academy in April this year that 'while the geometry of power may have changed, American leadership is as essential as ever'.

2.            China/Russia

One of the great success stories of the Obama Administration has been to recognise that the rise of China cannot and should not be 'contained'. Indeed, Obama recognised from the outset of his presidency that the US could not afford to shoulder the burdens of world leadership alone and if the 'tilt' towards the Pacific has been long in coming it may have been forced on him, in part, by the recognition that Europe has dealt itself out of the Great Power game.

No one believes that it is possible in the immediate or even mid-term to forge a US-China partnership. But Obama believes a strategic accommodation may be possible.  Romney too, although critical of Obama for conceding too much to the Chinese on issues such as trade and the convertibility of the Chinese currency is likely to be equally sensitive to what the Harvard Professor Graham Allison calls the 'Thucydides Trap', a reference to the great historian's conclusion that the Peloponnesian War broke out because of the growth of Athenian power and the fear that it provoked in Sparta. Hillary Clinton has gone out of her way to insist that history can be different next time. It is possible, in other words, to 'come up with a new answer to the old question' - can war be averted when a new power is rising on the block?  Interestingly, one of Romney's few foreign policy 'markers' has been to identify Russia, not China as Public Enemy Number One (in the same way that George W. Bush on the campaign trail in 2000 identified China). Even in relations with Russia a Romney Administration is likely to moderate its language. True, there are hawks amongst his advisors such as Eliot Cohen, Eric Edelman and Daniel Senor (not to mention the appalling John Bolton), but Romney is nothing if not a pragmatist, and he has realists on his team as well - men like Robert Zoellick who is tipped to lead the transnational team on national security, if he wins in November.

3.            The Allies

Romney's first and only foreign tour as a candidate was to America's three 'closest' allies, the UK, Poland and Israel, and whatever his undiplomatic remarks in London about the preparedness for the Olympics, this is unlikely to change. Neither Germany nor France is likely to displace Britain as America's number one European ally (Obama referred to it once again as 'our closest ally' in his speech to the Democratic Party Convention). America may be 'rebalancing' towards the Pacific, but its allies from South Korea to Japan are likely to prove, if not fair weather friends, less than open-ended in their commitment.  Even the Australian Prime Minister has suggested (perhaps in an off-the-cuff remark) that the base where the 2500 US Marines will be deployed might be 'rotated' so that other countries can deploy their forces too.

In Afghanistan the Europeans will remain America's only real allies into 2014 and possibly beyond. In dealing with the Arab Spring, France and the UK are the most likely partners. In Asia some of America's allies may choose to loosen their embrace with the United States, rather than be forced to choose between the US and China.  Even Japan, the oldest ally in the region, is becoming more inward-looking than ever before as its students prefer to stay at home rather than study abroad; as its English-language skills (measured in TOEFL tests) fall behind every other Asian country except North Korea; and as its role in international organisations, especially in the UN system, goes unremarked and unmentioned.

4.            Israel/Iran

Perhaps, the biggest difference between Romney and Obama appears to be the policy on a military strike against Iran if - as seems likely - Israel presses the issue, or should ever convince the US that nothing but an air strike will prevent the world from having to think the 'unthinkable' - co-existing with a nuclear armed theocratic state. In reality, although Romney's personal relations with Benyamin Netanyahu are likely to be much closer than Obama's (at least for a while) once in power he will receive the same advice that the President has from the security community: any Israeli strike with or without American assistance would end - sooner rather than later - in a very deep American intervention. In fact, Obama's record in Iran has been one of increasing militancy both in the use of economic sanctions and computer viruses such as Stuxnex and Flame. 'The surprise is his aggressiveness', notes a key ambassador who has worked closely with the President - a fact which, coupled with the use of drones in North West Asia, must be as disconcerting to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee as it is to Pakistan. Romney too is likely to find there is no escaping the risk trap which is one of the dilemmas of a risk age. The search for security certainly impels us to act; indeed a failure to act may exacerbate the risks we have to run. There is no better breeding ground for risk, after all, than denial or inactivity. But if one is too fearful and tries to secure the future on the basis of incomplete knowledge, or if everything becomes a danger that must be acted upon while there is still time, then risks may proliferate, making us all more insecure than we were before. It's called the 'risk trap' - doing too little or doing too much can both prove equally fatal.

5.            The Demographic Challenge

If I am right in suggesting that a Romney Administration would differ more in tone than substance (after the usual initial 'wobble' that all new administrations experience) there is one long-term difference between them that may be an important marker for the future. Both a Romney and second Obama administration may look rather dated in twenty years' time, looking back (fatally so, perhaps, for the Republicans). Every month 50,000 more Hispanics become eligible to vote in the US and most vote Democrat. It is their future impact on the domestic politics of the country that may eventually reshape US foreign policy too. It is this mid-term demographic change which is likely to signal a real break with American foreign policy in terms of a reduction in the interest in, and influence of, America's European allies. 

Obama's Presidency has been based on the promise of refocusing American power to the Pacific and re-grounding its moral leadership on the principles that sustained it through the Cold War. We hear less of an ethical foreign policy from Romney, and more about the politics of power, but his strategic choices are unlikely to be any different from those of the present administration. But as both look ahead they will face the same fights against the forces of economic protectionism in Congress; a military still divided between the realists and the hard-line activists still dreaming of a high-cost military transformation despite $500bn cuts in the offing; and a public opinion that has lost interest in foreign affairs and feels that nation-building should begin at home. For both candidates, the question over the next four years must be one of retrenchment: what can be cut, and what programmes can be stopped.  These choices will not be easy to make, but then there was always something hollow about Obama's promise to transfigure American politics; destiny may simply have other plans.

The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

Christopher Coker is Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics.


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