It is tempting to predict U.S. foreign policy under prospective presidents by deconstructing their campaign statements. But such exercises can produce misleading conclusions. Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt both campaigned on pronouncements that they wanted to keep the United States out of European wars. Both later led the country into direct military involvement. And two Republican presidential candidates who had run on staunch anticommunist platforms ended up transforming U.S. ties with communist rivals: Richard Nixon’s opening to China and policy of détente with the Soviet Union; and Ronald Reagan’s historic nuclear arms-control agreement with Moscow.
More recently, presidential candidate Bill Clinton bashed then-president George H.W. Bush for "coddling" Beijing. Once in office, he promoted normalized trade relations with China and its accession to the World Trade Organization. Who could forget candidate George W. Bush’s campaign pronouncement that "nation building" should not be an integral part of U.S. foreign policy. As president, he embraced a resolve to liberate, democratize and “remake” Iraq, Afghanistan and the rest of the Middle East.
Indeed, presidents frequently have acted contrary to the attitudes they expressed on the campaign trail. But even if actual policy is poorly predicted by what is said on the stump, a close look at the candidates' stated foreign-policy approaches does provide insights into what they likely will do in office.
Consider, for example, Barack Obama’s foreign-policy views as expressed during the 2008 presidential campaign. The candidate’s statements provided valuable insights into what would become his main national-security and diplomatic priorities, including his shift in strategic concerns from Iraq to Afghanistan, his effort to improve relations with Russia and the Muslim World, and his resolve to reenergize Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.
Obama had been an early opponent of the Iraq War and a critic of the neoconservative unilateralist and militarist foreign policy embraced by the second President Bush. But candidate Obama never suggested that his position was grounded in any leftwing or progressive anti-interventionist principles. Instead, he reiterated several times during the campaign that he respected the “realpolitik” types who were responsible for the more traditional internationalist diplomacy of the first President Bush. In fact, Obama consulted with one of these realist luminaries, former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, about his foreign-policy picks for the new administration.
Indeed, Obama’s foreign policy reflected pragmatic and realist inclinations similar to those of George H.W. Bush—as opposed to being driven by strong ideological convictions. Domestic political and bureaucratic pressure and the global balance of power in the aftermath of the Great Recession made it difficult for Obama to achieve some of his more ambitious goals on Iran and Israel/Palestine or in Afghanistan. But his cautious response to the political upheaval in the Arab World recalled the pragmatic strategies of Bush in response to the collapse of the Soviet Union and of the Nixon-Kissinger team following the U.S. defeat in Vietnam.
The downfall of the pro-American autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt and the growing threat to regimes that are either allied with Washington (Bahrain) or doing business with it (Yemen) amounted to a devastating blow to U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East. Add to this the costly military intervention in Iraq, the inconclusive war in Afghanistan, the deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Iran's nuclear military program, and the diverging U.S. and Turkish interests. In the face of all this, Obama recognized the constraints on America’s ability to maintain its hegemony in the region and eschewed the announcement of any new Grand Strategy.
Adjusting to the political changes in the Middle East, Obama accepted the inevitable (Egypt), sought to mold it (Bahrain), used limited military power (Libya) and treated through diplomacy (Libya)—while pressing European and Arab allies to assume more responsibilities in the region and seeking to generate a sense of momentum on the Israeli-Palestinian front.
With American economic foundations eroding and its military overstretched, Obama’s policies have been sensible and cost effective. Yet listening to the Republican criticism of Obama’s foreign policy one could conclude that the United States is still at the height of the post-Cold War “unipolar moment” and America’s global preeminence is under challenge only as a result of the president’s alleged failure to stand up for American interests and values, including its Pax Americana in the Middle East.
These Republicans reject the notion that the international system already—well before Obama—was acquiring more multipolar characteristics as China and other powers began to challenge the United States in the geostrategic and economic arenas. Among GOP presidential candidates, former Masschussetts governor Mitt Romney clearly is in this camp, as reflected in his recent foreign-policy address at the Citadel in South Carolina.
“America is not destined to be one of several equally balanced global powers,” Romney declared, pledging to ensure this will be another “American century.” He pledged to increase the construction of naval ships, strengthen the alliance with Israel, enhance the deterrence against Iran, appoint a top official to act as U.S. proconsul in the Middle East, and perhaps even slow the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.