Gwynne Dyer: Why the U.S. presidential election barely matters when it comes to foreign policy

There was never going to be a big debate on U.S. foreign policy at the Democratic National Convention. It will be whatever Barack Obama says it should be, and besides, the delegates in Charlotte weren’t interested.

It’s the economy, stupid, and two months before the election nobody wants to get sidetracked into discussing a peripheral issue like American foreign policy. The only people who really care about that at the moment are foreigners and the U.S. military—and even they are not following the election with bated breath, because few of them believe that a change of president could fundamentally change the way the U.S. relates to the rest of the world.

Although the Republicans do their best to paint Obama as a wild-eyed radical who is dismantling America’s defences, he has actually been painfully orthodox in his foreign policy. He loves Israel to bits, he did not shut down the Afghan war (or Guantanamo), he uses drones to kill U.S. enemies (and sometimes, anybody else who is nearby), and he tamely signs off on a $700 billion defence budget.

How can Mitt Romney top that? He could say he loves Israel even more. In fact, he does say that, promising to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. But that is purely gesture politics, since almost no other countries do, and in practice Obama gives Israel almost everything it wants already.

He could pledge to spend even more on “defence” than Obama, but the United States is already pouring 4.7 percent of its Gross Domestic Product down that rathole. Obama has planned cuts over the next several years that would bring it down to about 4 percent—and Romney has promised not to let it fall below 4 percent. Not a huge difference there.

Romney does his best to disguise that fact by declaring that he would reverse certain of Obama’s decisions. U.S. ground forces, for example, would remain at their current level under a Romney administration, rather than being reduced by 100,000 people. But changing only that and nothing else would put $25 billion a year back onto the defence budget. How do you do that without raising taxes?

The Republican candidate faces a constraint none of his recent predecessors had: a party that really cares about the deficit. In the past three decades, it has been Republican presidents who ran up the bills—Ronald Reagan never balanced a budget, and the Bush-Cheney team declared that “deficits don’t matter”—while the subsequent Democratic administrations tried to curb out-of-control spending.

Romney doesn’t have that option: the Tea Party wing of his party actually means what it says about both taxes and deficits. So what’s left for him? Well, he could promise to kill even more of America’s enemies than Obama, but he can’t get around the fact that it’s Obama who nailed Osama bin Laden, and Obama who is playing fast and loose with international law by using drones to carry out remote-control assassinations of hostile foreigners.

So Romney says very little about foreign policy because there is little he can say. The closest he has come to specific policy changes was an “action plan” he laid out during the Republican primaries last year, to be accomplished within a hundred days of taking office. It was an entirely credible promise, because none of it really involves a policy change at all.

He promised to “re-assure traditional allies that America will fulfill its global commitments.” A couple of phone calls, and that’s done.

He declared that he would move more military forces to the Gulf “to send a message to Iran,” but he didn’t threaten to attack Iran, or endorse an Israeli attack on Iran. And he can always move them back again if he gets bored.

He said he would appoint a Middle East czar to oversee U.S. support for the evolving Arab transitions. That’s one more government job, but Romney has even less idea than Obama about where he wants those transitions to end up. Besides, the United States has almost no leverage on this issue.

He will review the Obama administration's planned withdrawal from Afghanistan. Not necessarily change it; just review it.

He will also review Obama’s global missile defence strategy. He might like to change that—Republicans have loved the concept ever since Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” dreams—but he hasn’t got the kind of money he would need for a more ambitious policy.

He will increase the government's focus on cybersecurity. Ho-hum.

He will raise the rate of U.S. Navy shipbuilding. So far as budget constraints permit, which is not very far at all.

And he will launch an economic opportunity initiative in Latin America. As long as it doesn’t cost much money.

It’s not surprising that the rest of the world doesn’t care much about the U.S. election. Most foreigners, on both the right and the left, are more comfortable with Obama than Romney, but U.S. foreign policy will stay the same whoever wins. They might not like all of it, but they’re used to it.

Comments (15) Add New Comment
Steller's Jay
All the things you say about Obama could equally have been said about Al Gore. What can Romney do to top Obama? What could Bush have done to top Gore? But Bush found a way, and I'm sure that Romney will, too, if he's elected.

And if you truly think that the Republicans/Tea Party are serious about deficits you're very naive.
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Jim Clarke
Just a quibble: you estimate that reducing the American armed forces by 100,000 people would save $25 million a year -- but that's only $250 each. Maybe a couple of zeros have gone missing?
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miguel
Either one needs to win the Triple Derby - White House, 60% of House, and Senate.
Miguel
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Issac Chandler
As Eric Margolis puts it - America’s power has declined after the loss of two wars:
http://ericmargolis.com/2012/09/a-blast-from-the-past-the-non-aligned-mo...

"Obama who is playing fast and loose with international law by using drones"

Obama is playing fast and loose with American law by using drones to kill Americans:

http://www.salon.com/2012/07/18/obamas_killings_challenged_again/


But then nobody is home:
http://www.salon.com/2012/08/13/nbcs_war_for_fun_and_profit/


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Victoria Bruce
Jim Clarke: Dyer said ADDING 100,000 troops would COST a $25 BILLION. That's $250,000 per person per year.
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Miranda Nelson
Hi Victoria,

The column originally read $25 million, hence Jim's question. The correct figure is indeed $25 BILLION, and we've since updated the article.

Thanks!
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James G
Written before this afternoon's Democratic Convention floor manipulation on the Jerusalem issue, I presume?

http://www.buzzfeed.com/zekejmiller/chaos-as-democrats-try-to-put-jerusa...

The rest of the world doesn't much care about the US election? Please show your work.

In the case of Canada, although the Obama White House decisions have had a consistently negative impact upon us, (buy American push that leaves us out, fees for crossing the border) there is still a shared values agenda that polls show consistently that 65 to 70 per cent of Canadians would vote Obama in 2012 versus 10 or less percent for Romney. A successful use of super PAC funds, social conservative values against abortion rights and gay marriage in a Republican victory would have major ramifications right here.

Only when the election cycle in the U.S. is complete will we know how much support there will be for the Keystone pipeline, which will have an enormous impact upon our own economy and body politic.
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Mosby
The US presidential election also barely matters when it comes to DOMESTIC policy.

The United States is a democracy in name only. In practice, it's a corporate regime disguised as a 2-party system in order to keep the citizens bickering among themselves and believing that their votes make some kind of difference in how the country is run.

The president doesn't "call the shots"; he or she is just a figurehead who is told what to say and how to act by a team of advisers working behind the scenes. The president's job is to follow directives handed down by a decision-making body whose name is never mentioned in mainstream media but is otherwise known as the corporate oligarchy. The oligarchy that controls the current puppet show will continue unchanged regardless of which puppet happens to be elected as president.

It's not "a conspiracy"; it's how the system works. And I'm not being cynical -- just realistic.
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Mosby
The US presidential election is simply another distraction for the masses. There is only one real political party in the United States; it's called the Money Party, and it has two main agendas:

1. The public (or visible) agenda of the Money Party is to convince taxpayers that there are two parties with different goals, and that voting for either party will make a difference.

2. The private (or hidden) agenda of the Money Party is to bribe (i.e. lobby) politicians with millions of dollars in exchange for billion$ worth of business contracts, favours, subsidies, bailouts, convenient tax loopholes, and lax enforcement of regulations.

Both agendas are operating perfectly. Most US taxpayers falsely believe they have a choice, while the ruling class continues to accumulate power and wealth at the expense of the working class.
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James G
The comments by Mosby are true enough. I recalled that we on the activist left in Canada used to refer to both mainstream political parties in the United States as the "Republicrats". Their duopoly on a false electoral pattern that allows very little independent policy making on foreign or financial affairs is also evident.

However, there have been other agendas at work for a variety of reasons in making a more equitable society. Those who refuse to see the vested stake we all have in social issues including women's right to safe and legal abortion, the right of gay couples to wed simply have tunnel vision. The incumbent Prime Minister of New Zealand has recently announced his support for gay marriage as a direct result of the American presidential campaign. To a great portion of the world, the re-election or not of the first non-white American to be President, figurehead or not, still has meaning.

The advent of Obamacare, however limited is still the first meaningful extension of social rights in the US since the 1960s. It's defeat, the defeat of a candidacy in support of gay marriage and the election of candidates that are so socially conservative they will attempt to outlaw abortion outright will have enormous reach into other countries electoral politics. Successful or not, that accumulation of wealth in a few hands, very often attached to weak minds and black hearts will next head north and anywhere else it can affect policy. The argument that the world does not care about the US election is prima facie appealing to us lefties but unfortunately both untrue and weakly stated here.

Obama has made appointments who belong more in federal prison than in cabinet but what is emerging in the United States is a clear choice between a centre-right political party and an emergent far-right political party. I can only quote Olivier Besancenot of Frances Noveau Parti Anticapitaliste (or NPA) who urged electors in the second round between the despicable Jacques Chirac and the heinous Jean Marie Le Pen in the 2005 French Presidential election to "vote against Le Pen" should again be echoed thus,
"Vote against Romney and Ryan!"
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Disagreeable
"Why the U.S. presidential election barely matters when it comes to foreign policy"- yup,Uncle Sam has just one foreign policy:extend the American empire to profit from other countrie's people and resources.
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JMW
I just remembered a passage from a book I read called "Politics in the Ancient World" (M.I. Finley, ISBN-10 0521275709), which was about how politics worked in ancient Greek city-states and the Roman Republic.

The interesting thing was that, toward the end of the Roman Republic, Finley wrote that the various powerful senatorial families vied with each other for political power within the Roman Senate, but when power changed hands, the policies didn't actually change very much.

This resembles what happens in the U.S. now. Obama campaigned on changing so many things, but he hasn't. In some areas, he's been stonewalled by Republicans. In others, he's been persuaded to not make changes. But by and large, there is no major change in U.S. policy now from 4 years ago under Bush.

And we all know what happened to the Roman Republic.
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McRocket
Both candidates are useless (politically) and so are both parties.

Fiscally they are both pathetic.

The same on foreign policy.

And most Americans (most people period, actually) seem to politically inept to notice.

The next 20 years are going to be very rough ones for America and most of the 'West'.

The party is slowly coming to an end.
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petr aardvark
if Israel launches a pre-emptive strike on Irans nuclear facilities - before the election- in an attempt to sway the US election - then it really will matter who is in the white house on foreign policy.
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James G
Sometimes I rejoice in the accomplishments of activism on so many fronts over the past 50 years and sometimes I wonder how many straight white working class males can still only relate to issues that affect their own personal lives.

At any rate, the Guardian has done their work on this file, absent above.
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