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.
This mishmash of policy ideas assumes that Washington should and could reverse its military and economic decline. But it does not explain how that would happen or how the United States could ensure that it will not become “one of several equally balanced global powers.”
In a way, Romney and most of the other Republican presidential hopefuls call to mind Churchill’s stated insistence that Britain would retain its empire in India and elsewhere after 1945. That was a fantasy, as is the idea that America can call the shots in the Middle East with budget deficits rising to the stratosphere and the American public losing its appetite for a rerun of George W. Bush’s military adventures, nation building and democracy promotion. Romney and other Republicans miss the reality that it was George W. Bush’s Mideast policies that weakened American power in the region—by strengthening the power of Iran and its regional satellites.
Moreover, while Romney and other Republicans appreciate that China is emerging as America’s main global competitor—Romney has chastised China’s trade policies as harming U.S. interests—they fail to acknowledge that U.S. diplomatic preoccupation with the Middle East and its military intervention there have made it impossible to invest more time and resources in strengthening its power in East Asia.
The only Republican presidential candidate who comes close to recognizing these changing strategic and economic realities—and in particular, the rise of China—is Jon Huntsman, who is fluent in Chinese and served as U.S ambassador to Beijing.
In an address in Southern New Hampshire University on Monday, Hunstsman called for a reversal of the policies of George W. Bush. “It's time to erase the old map,” he said. “End nation building, engage our allies and fix our economic core.”
Sounding more like President Obama and Herbert Walker Bush, he insisted that “we need a foreign policy based on expansion—the expansion of America's competitiveness and engagement in the world through partnerships and trade agreements.” He called for a new era of U.S. global engagement based on strong economic partnerships and a leading role in what he said would be a new “Pacific Century.”
Huntsman refrained from promoting ambitious U.S. military commitments abroad and proposed instead “more agility, more intelligence and more economic engagement with the world.” America “must right-size our current foreign entanglements,” he said. “Simply put, we are risking American blood and treasure in parts of the world where our strategy needs to be rethought.”
Huntsman reiterated that he would withdraw most U.S. forces from Afghanistan while leaving a small core of troops on the ground there next year. “It is cultural arrogance to think we can make tribal leaders into democratic leaders,” he said. “It is wishful thinking to believe that our troops, by staying for a couple more years, will prevent further instability or even civil war.”
In some ways, Huntsman sounded more “Reaganite” than both Romney and Obama. He pledged to develop strong economic ties with fast-growing Asian nations; hailed the expected passage of pending trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama; and said he would pursue agreements with Japan and Taiwan and conclude negotiations on a trans-Pacific partnership trade accord, which he said would open markets in Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. Such policies would not only boost the American economy but also would allow the United States to strengthen ties with Asian countries that could serve as a counterweight to rising Chinese power.
In contrast to his opponents for the Republican nomination, Huntsman reflects the Republican tradition of a prudent foreign policy and a strong role in the global economy—which in turn serves as a road map for reshaping the U.S. position in a changing international system. It is unfortunate that Republican voters aren’t likely to embrace his proposals. But a President Romney, bitten by reality, may have to abandon his campaign rhetoric and govern more along the lines of Jon Huntsman’s outlook.
Leon Hadar, a Washington-based journalist and global affairs analyst, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).