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.