Will the 2012 US presidential election affect US foreign policy?

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On November 6, 2012, Americans will again go to voting stations. Majority of them will determine if President Barack Obama will be given a second term or give the seat in the White House to the Republican nominee. As of this writing, the Grand Old Party (GOP) has yet no clear frontrunner given the competitive Republican primary. Pundits predict that it will be the former governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney but so far he is fighting an uphill climb in getting his party's nomination. His closest rivals are former senator of Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas libertarian House Representative Ron Paul.

Looking back on 2011, the Obama administration accomplished many things in the area of foreign policy such as: (1) the assassination of 9/11's mastermind, Osama Bin Laden, (2) the downfall of authoritarian regimes in Arab countries like Tunisia, Egypt and Libya dubbed as the Arab Awakening and (3) perhaps the most popular among the American electorate is the withdrawal of U.S. forces in Iraq. As reported way back by Marquardt (2008), his vice President Joe Biden stated that foreign adversaries will test Pres. Obama's mettle. Given these accomplishments, the President show how tough his mettle is. As far as polls are concerned, Americans viewed him more favorably in area of foreign policy than the Republicans (Williams, 2011).

Still, many things may happen between now and November 6. As per foreign policy analyst Jessica Mathews (2011), it is highly likely that President Obama will face the following issues prior to the election such as: (1) the continuation of Euro crisis, (2) the stability in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, (3) the possibility of a Nuclear Iran and the pre-emptive strike by Israel against it that may cause the price of oil to skyrocket, (4) the election of Islamists in Egypt that may threaten Israel, (5) the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, (6) the results of election in Russia, (7) the transition of leadership in North Korea and China and (8) the continuation of Arab Awakening in countries like Syria and Yemen. How these issues will be addressed by his administration may influence voter's decision by Election Day as well.

More than accomplishments in foreign policy, Pres. Obama cannot campaign on this platform alone. With the U.S. economy still under recession, voters are preoccupied with the issue of high unemployment. Still, foreign policy expert John Lindsay (2011) argued that foreign policy is still a major credential for someone aspiring for the highest seat of the United States for four reasons: First, the President is the commander-in-chief tasked to look over the country's national security. Thus, candidates will always be asked on how they will deal with U.S. rivals like China, Iran, Russia, North Korea and other countries. Second, foreign policy also provides an overview of the candidate's leadership skills. For one, he may be asked how he will use American forces to achieve its objectives overseas. In line with the first and second reason, foreign policy provides a stage for the candidates to show their toughness in dealing with other countries. The tougher the rhetoric the candidate makes, the more positive impression he will have on his base. Lastly, foreign policy can be used by candidates to appeal to certain voting blocs. A good example is campaigning for a Pro-Israeli foreign policy that attracts social conservatives, Jewish and Evangelicals. It is shown that a large plurality of the American electorate is highly sympathetic to Israel (Green, 2007). Perhaps it can even be argued that American support for Israel is one of the tenets of U.S. foreign policy which is eternal regardless of the party in power. With Republican challengers stating strong support for Israel in their campaign sorties, the foreign policy is framed or debated on how to support Israel against its aggressors especially Iran and Palestine. Given these reasons, there is no question that the outcome of the 2012 U.S. elections or any other years for that matter really affects American foreign policy priorities.

Thus, we now proceed to the question on how the outcome of the 2012 US elections affects its foreign policy priorities. Such question is too complex to answer and we simply cannot rely from the candidates' campaign rhetoric alone. For one, campaigning is a way different from governing once the candidate gets elected (Campbell & Steinberg, 2008; Lindsay, 2011). It has been shown many times in past administrations where the President, as a candidate, admonished his predecessor on a certain foreign policy issue and ends up doing the same thing once elected. A good example provided by Lindsay (2011) is U.S.-China relationship. In the past, candidate George W. Bush criticized the Clinton administration for not acting tough against China. Once he got elected, he got to see the constraints of such action thus adopting his predecessor’s approach. Pres. Obama has already demonstrated how he designed and implemented his foreign policies thus the electorate already have a concrete view of them. Once re-elected, it is highly likely that these policies will continue. As for his challengers, it is likely that voters may give them the benefit of the doubt in relation to their campaign’s foreign policy platforms. Still, there are clues on how the President-elect will design and implement American foreign policy priorities. For one, there is an ideological foreign policy divide between Democrats and Republicans. Still, foreign policy analyst David Shorr (2008) argued that stereotypes between these ideologies are somehow exaggerated. For one, liberals do not necessarily accept international law or the United Nations entirely, nor do conservatives disregard them aggressively. In fact, there are many foreign policy issues where there is a common ground for them to meet on (Chollet, Lindberg & Shorr, 2008).

Nevertheless, a sharp distinction is present between the two party’s foreign policy in the area of facing adversaries. Paul Viotti (2010) observed that the elected government adhered to any of the following views since the Cold War: First is liberal internationalism where peaceful engagement is the most preferred option. Adversaries may also be contained through blockade, sanctions and other means but there is still an active engagement. Armed intervention is only considered as a last resort. Democrats like Pres. Obama and former Pres. Clinton are considered as liberal-internationalists. Second is conservative-internationalism where containment is the most preferred option. Conservative-internationalists will only engage with adversaries when there is a clear advantage on their part. Armed intervention is also considered but reverts to containment once military goals are accomplished. This is highly evident of former Pres. George H. W. Bush where after liberating Kuwait decided to contain Iraq through an arms embargo and economic sanctions. Both views adopt a multilateral approach in solving an international crisis. Lastly is neoconservative-internationalism where there is a high skepticism on the effectiveness of peaceful engagement with adversaries. They are highly likely to use military interventions when it is advantageous doing so. This foreign policy view is also known for its unilateral approach where it does not take allies' views into account and may even view them as hindrances. With regards to invasion of Iraq and withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, former Pres. George W. Bush administration adhered to this neoconservative view (Daalder & Lindsay, 2003).

On the Republican side, how will you know if their candidate is either a conservative-internationalist or a neoconservative-internationalist? Perhaps the composition of his foreign policy team will tell. At the moment, President Obama’s foreign policy team consists of liberal-internationalists like Vice President Joe Biden, UN Ambassadress Susan Rice, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, National Security Council Advisor James Jones and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. At the moment, with the exception of Hillary Clinton who said she will no longer join the State Department, Pres. Obama is likely to retain his foreign policy team once he gets re-elected. As for his Republican challengers, only Mitt Romney has introduced a team of foreign policy experts in his campaign website (Mitt Romney Press, 2011). Prominent among them are former senator of Minnesota Norm Coleman, former senator from Missouri Jim Talent, former CIA director Michael Hayden and foreign policy analyst Robert Kagan. All of them supported the Iraq War and are

affiliated with aggressive hawks or the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party (Rozen, 2011). Though a President is independent and may decide on his own, his foreign policy team has a major influence on shaping those decisions (Daalder & Lindsay, 2003). The victor in November will surely shape American foreign policy for 2013-2016 and may even influence future policies beyond his term. Indeed, there will be a lot of issues in his plate and he should be more than ready to act on them appropriately. On a final note, may this quote from former President John F. Kennedy serves as an inspiration: “Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.”

References: 
  1. Campbell, K. M. & Steinberg, J. B. (2008). Difficult Transitions. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution
  2. Chollet, D. Lindberg, T. & Shorr, D. (2008) Bridging the Foreign Policy Divide. NY: Routledge
  3. Daalder, I. H. & Lindsay, J. M. (2003). America Unbound. Washington, DC: Brookings Institutio
  4. n Green, J. C. (2009). The American Public and Sympathy for Israel: Present and Future. Journal Of Ecumenical Studies, 44(1), 107-121.
  5. Lindsay, J. M. (2011). The Role of Foreign Policy in the 2012 U.S. Presidential Elections. Retrieved February 1, 2012 from http://fpc.state.gov/178955.htm
  6. Marquardt, A. (2008). Biden predicts early crisis will test Obama. Retrieved February 1, 2012 from http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2008/10/20/biden-predicts-early-cri...
  7. Mathews, J. T. (2011). The World in 2012. Retrieved February 1, 2012 from http://www.tradenewswire.net/archives/13759#more-13759
  8. Mitt Romney Press (2011). Mitt Romney Announces Foreign Policy and National Security Advisory Team. Retrieved February 1, 2012 from http://mittromney.com/blogs/mitts-view/2011/10/mitt-romney-announces-for...
  9. Rozen, L. (2011). Mitt Romney announces his foreign policy team. Retrieved February 1, 2012 from: http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/envoy/mitt-romney-announces-foreign-policy-t...
  10. Shorr, D. (2008). Preface. In D. Chollet, T. Lindberg & D. Shorr (Eds.) Bridging the Foreign Policy Divide (pp. ix-xiii). NY: Routledge
  11. Viotti, P. R. (2010). American Foreign Policy. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press
  12. Williams, J. (2011). In 2012 Race It's Advantage Obama Over Republicans On Foreign Policy. Retrieved February 1, 2012 from http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2011/12/17/in-2012-race-its-advantage-oba...