US presidential election 2012

Foreign policy challenges for the next president

4 November 2012

US presidential election matters, to the rest of the world

Soon, the people of the United States will be electing their next president. At the moment, many polls suggest President Obama and Governor Romney are neck-and-neck nationally, but it does seem that President Obama is marginally ahead in many of the closely contested states, therefore the incumbent is the likelier victor. No one knows what will happen in the remaining hours of campaigning and on the election day itself, especially in the aftermath of the damages wrought by the hurricane. In the end, the voters will decide, and it would be interesting to see whose polls will be proven to have been the most accurate.

While it is up to the voters in America to choose their leader, it matters greatly to the rest of world, who becomes the commander-in-chief of a (and arguably the only) military superpower, which has not been shy in flexing its muscles. Most outsiders are fascinated or appalled by the extremely divisive culture war that American politicians and people are conducting domestically, but what interests, and perhaps scares, non-Americans the most is the use of its military – and also economic – power.

In history, and in politics, there is a constant debate about the role of individuals in changing or perhaps moulding the course of events. Put it another way: how much power does the president of the US actually have to shape the future of the wider world? I believe individuals are important, and the decisions that individuals make are important, but at the same time, their options are limited by the circumstances over which they have little control or influence. Some powers are more powerful than others, and the leaders of more powerful countries have more influence, and the fact remains that the US is the strongest and most sophisticated military power in history. For this reason, the US presidential election matters, for many people outside the US, because it is the president of the US, who ultimately decides on war and peace, even within limitation.

In the following paragraphs, I would like to sketch out very broadly the main issues in foreign policy that the next president will face, namely in relation to China and the Middle East. The economic and geopolitical constraints are such that I do not think the next president, regardless whether it is Mr Obama or Mr Romney, will have too much of a room for manoeuvre in the direction of foreign policy, and the next president will end up doing broadly similar things, but with a crucial proviso, that, as mentioned in the previous paragraph, the US president can and will be placed to decide on war and peace. A decision, for example, whether to intervene militarily to prevent Iran’s nuclear programme or not, will lead to consequences, so while there is no tectonic or paradigm shift as far as foreign policy is concerned, the character and the soundness of decision-making of the president matter greatly. The qualification notwithstanding, it is in domestic policy, on matters such as healthcare and abortion, that there are clear differences between the two paths offered by the two candidates.

A detour: what if Mr Romney were to win?

Before moving on to the issues on foreign policy, just a small detour: if Mr Romney were to emerge victorious, then he would not be able to implement his uncosted fiscal policies, unless he wishes to bankrupt and close the federal government, which probably means that he would have to be socially conservative, in order to abandon fiscally conservative policies, that he promised during the primaries and in the general election. In other words, he would be forced to buy the support of the hardline Republicans in the Congress by giving them the go-ahead to continue with culture war, in return for abandoning his fiscal pledges.

China, America, Chimerica: a messy divorce to follow?

The US is lucky in that it can go on printing and borrowing money, a luxury not available to European countries, if the political will for it exists. Part of the reason that US can do so is China, in that China will absorb a substantial proportion of any increase in monetary supply in the US. Both countries seem to think that the current arrangement cannot go on, yet the short-term imperatives are such that they keep packing on more explosives to the ticking time-bomb. It is a weird situation in which the US, having borrowed too much, is in the stronger position than China, which naturally has lent too much, and a premature end to this arrangement will be catastrophic for China.

How to get the US debt down, quite rightly, has been one of the main issues in the presidential election, but the American economy probably needs quite a bit of propping up for the next few years, and that could well mean more debt. China will need to keep buying extra money that US prints or borrows, partly because it needs to keep the exchange rate favourable for their exporters, but also because the Chinese state and its banks seem to have huge yuan liabilities to the Chinese people against their dollar assets. In simplistic terms, if the dollar loses its value, then the Chinese state and state banks could go bankrupt, in that they cannot meet the yuan liabilities. China looks aware of the problem, and it has been diversifying and acquiring assets, quite furiously, in different countries and in different forms to lessen the risk.

The arrangement had suited the needs of the two countries, and both have benefited from it: the US created an illusion of wealth on debt, and China found a ready market for its goods. However, there is a danger that the political discourses in the US and China will become more pointed against each other, fuelled by domestic political concerns. Partly out of anger about the unlevel playing field, and currency manipulation, but also partly out of angst that China is eclipsing the US as the dominant superpower, the US may take sterner position towards China, because of its two-year election cycle. China is in a state of political transition, and a new political leadership will be in place over the next year, which may wish to project its strength by becoming more assertive towards the US. In addition to the state of political flux, indications are that the rate of economic growth has slowed down in China, and the Chinese leadership may wish to appear strong abroad to assuage anger and frustration at home. In both cases, the domestic political discourse, and appealing to the electorate or to the population in general, could push both American and Chinese leaderships into a more confrontational course.

There will also likely to be military and geopolitical tensions between the US and China in and over the Pacific. The US has built a cordon sanitaire in the Far East, such as Japan and South Korea, hemming in China. No doubt that the US would try to create an arc of allies, denying China access to the wider seas, and to have allies with land borders with China, so as to keep its great wall against China. For China, it makes sense to build up its navy, especially aircraft carriers, in an attempt to countervail the US naval power, and break through that wall. China will see such as essentially a defensive move, aiming for a parity or an equilibrium of sorts, but it will be perceived by others as an aggressive move.

The relationship between the US and China will be one of the most important, in terms of peace and security of many, not only in these two countries: whether this will end up as hostile and antagonistic, leading to an arms race, or mutually beneficial and based on respect, will be seen. It will probably be somewhere in the middle, and this coming presidency, and the next, could be vital in setting the tone for a generation of American and Chinese politicians and people.

The Middle East: a minefield

President Obama’s foreign policy record has been somewhat patchy, especially in the Middle East, very broadly defined (as stretching from Pakistan to North Africa): he has been decisive on occasions, such as his successful pursuit of Osama bin Laden, yet at other times, he has been characterized by indecision, as demonstrated by the rather hesitant US position in the Middle East and North Africa following the Arab Spring. Alternatively, it can be argued that President Obama has demonstrated caution, but acted where necessary, thereby achieving the most important goals while avoiding entanglement with inextricable foreign policy commitments, at a time where there is neither appetite nor money to do so. There are many matters in the Middle East, that will force the next president to take positions and make decisions, and some of them may well turn out to be difficult and unenviable.

The Arab Spring, which saw the fall of many dictatorships, but also shows signs of a very uncertain and tortuous route towards democratization and the rule of law, makes US policy towards the Middle East very difficult. There does not seem to be a clear strategy yet for the Middle East, that would secure US and Israeli interests. A big part of the problem is democracy in countries where the US is not popular: politicians may pander to their electorates by bashing America and taking a more stridently hostile attitude towards Israel. The US had propped up military dictatorships in the region, and it was the generally pro-western regimes that fell first, such as Tunisia and Egypt. It is far more difficult to win the hearts and minds of the people, who are not well predisposed to you, than to threaten, cajole, bribe or strike up a deal with a dictator. It is the soft power, influence based on persuasion, that the US will need to build on in the region. It is not simply about military might or economic muscle, but something more complex, in which the government can only do so much, yet it can give a clear sign to be as welcoming and open to the people it wishes to win over.

On specific cases like Syria and Iran, there are no easy options for the US government. Any action at any point will be seen as too little, too late by some, and too early and too reckless by others. It does look as if the regime in Syria is dying a slow and agonizing death. No western power, at the moment, is prepared to intervene directly, though there will be support to topple the current regime by indirect help. The question, like with other countries in the region, is what kind of state will emerge from the ashes of dictatorship? The Syrian civil war has many fault lines, and it is unclear which faction will form the government, or whether Syria as will fall into pieces, riven apart by differences. Could the US wield influence so that some sort of stability can be established in Syria in the near future? It would combine diplomacy and behind-the-scene assistance to the anti-Assad groups. The outlook and the outcome look very uncertain.

Iran is perhaps more of a direct threat towards the US than Syria, and it can represent an existential threat to Israel. Is there a way to stop Iran from creating a nuclear bomb, and a mechanism to deliver it? If the sanctions fail and the diplomacy finds itself in a cul-de-sac, will the US negotiate with Iran and concede a lot of grounds, or can military intervention actually stop Iran’s nuclear programme? One thing that the president would want to avoid is to embark on a military action, because there are no other feasible options, since the efficacy of a possible military action has been questioned in stopping Iran’s nuclear programme and a military conflict in the region could get out of hand. Iran will probably rank as one of the thorniest issue for the next US president, and his actions towards Iran may well define the presidency.

Afghanistan and Pakistan also pose problems. Troop withdrawal from Afghanistan will proceed at some point, whoever wins the election, and the US would hope that the Afghan government will not be overrun by the Taliban that quickly. The worst-case scenario is a Taliban take-over of Afghanistan and Pakistan, partially or wholly, which could mean a Taliban with nuclear weapons, which raises a terrible spectre of nuclearization and destabilization of the world stretching from India to North Africa. Pakistan is the key, more so perhaps than Afghanistan, for the security of the region. The alarming thing is that there seems to be no one who can bring order in Pakistan: both civilian and military governments have failed to set out a coherent plan and vision for Pakistan, and they have both been discredited and shown to be corrupt. Because of the drone attacks in Pakistan, which has resulted in a widespread and deeply anti-American sentiment, and the Pakistani fear of strategic encirclement by India and a pro-Indian regime in Kabul, it is doubtful that any Pakistani government will be sufficiently popular, retain the support of the army and the intelligence services, and remain pro-US at the same time. The US will need to come up with a realistic plan that will address both Afghanistan and Pakistan, at the centre of which must be the establishment of a stable and functioning state in these two countries.

Naturally, there are other problems and challenges for the next president, such as climate change, the spread of fundamentalists in western Africa, for example in Mali and the worsening situation in northern Nigeria, the instability of North Korea, as well as finding common grounds with powers such as Russia and India in international diplomacy, and constructing amicable relationship with Latin America. Undoubtedly there will be issues that are not yet visible on the horizon, and the next US president will be called to make tough and unpalatable decisions. However, it looks, at the moment, that the Middle East will be the most volatile and dangerous area. It could be argued that it has been thus since the collapse of communism, or even before, but the events that are currently unfolding, and their unpredictable course, make the region fraught with even more danger.

Goodwill towards America

There is one element in which there will be significant difference between a second-term Obama presidency and a Romney presidency: goodwill towards the US. It is probably safe to say that President Obama got away and will get away with things that President G W Bush could not have, and if elected Mr Romney would not be getting away with, on matters such as drone attacks violating Pakistani sovereignty, in the eyes of the opinion of the wider world. Mr Obama is well-liked by many outside the US, and remains very popular. If Mr Romney were to be elected president, he would most likely encounter difficulties, because many people outside the US view the Republicans as dangerous war-mongers and torturers, making their governments less popular for co-operating with the US.

The damage to the reputation to the Republicans in particular and the US generally, caused by the invasion of Iraq under President G W Bush, is something that perhaps many Americans do not appreciate: the war has been seen either as a cynical way to secure the oil in the region, or a war fought on a whim, but in any case it was extremely disturbing. In other words, Mr Romney would start with a deficit in trust and goodwill, not for his personal failings, but because the previous Republican occupant of the White House was President G W Bush, and he would have to do more a lot more convincing of the rest of the world to reach the same point President Obama does, in order to find consensus in policies such as sanctions.

Tough times ahead

Whoever finds himself in the White House as the next president of the USA will face tough times. The challenges are different from, but arguably more difficult than, the past four years, that were characterized by the collapse in the economy, and finding ways to extricate the US from the imbroglio in Iraq and Afghanistan. Within the constraints placed by the economy, geopolitical situation, and strategic room for manoeuvre, there is still room for the US president to shape the course of events. The people of America will make up their minds, and vote for their president, but the rest of the world will also be looking at the election to see who will be the person, the lone and lonely person, on whose judgement and on whose decisions their lives and welfare may depend.