The US constitution purposefully vests the president of the United States with extra-legal means to combat serious threats to national sovereignty; means to which allows each presidency to dominate in foreign policy issues. Yet, despite changes in administration, the office has shown continuity in its foreign policy priorities and agenda. It is the existence of this certain „tradition‟ that questions any presumptive president‟s power to profoundly affect US foreign policy. Continuity in US foreign policy is argued by Lynch (2011) to have two key determinants: the existence of a coherent external threat to American sovereignty, and also secondly, that of a robust domestic consensus on the necessity of confronting and defeating the threat. In a sense, it is in satisfying these conditions that make foreign policy less contentious during elections, which in turn makes candidates more alike than they would like to be otherwise. As this essay will explore, the upcoming 2012 presidential elections can be described to be in this situation: presidential candidates share conceptions of threats coming from Iran and China and recent domestic polls correspond to such views. Despite all the tough talk and mudslinging, in facing these two enabling conditions, all major candidates have limited scope to steer away from foreign policy priorities. With this in regard, this paper gives a critical examination of the nature of the naval office.
On the questions of China‟s rise, the perception of threat by all the candidates has been largely similar. Although there is rhetoric on the peaceful rise of China by President Obama (Xuequan 2012), there have been threats made to American sovereignty on trade-related matters, as highlighted by the candidates. In his State of the Union address (Obama 2012), for instance, President Obama announced the creation of a Trade Enforcement Unit to investigate „unfair trading practices in countries like China‟. Republican candidate Mitt Romney further accuses China of being a currency manipulator, but falls short calling a trade war (Romney 2012), whilst fellow Republican hopeful, Rick Santorum, pledges to go one step further and go to a trade war with China and beat China (Miller 2011). Though actions sought range from passive-aggressive to aggressive, this perceived or indeed real threat to American industry is coherent in a sense that there is a shared conceptualisation of a China taking advantage of the US in trade. This example is akin to the „shared threat perception‟ of international terrorism between the Bush and Obama administration, in which Lynch (8, 2011) argues to be a source of continuity in US foreign policy towards terrorism. Candidates‟ views, moreover, reflect the mood in recent polls. For instance, though a strong majority of Americans do not see China as an adversary, one-in-five Americans surveyed see China as the country that is the „greatest danger‟ to the U.S, ahead of North Korea and Iran (Pew Research Centre 2011). Indeed, it is polled that while Americans view a stronger relationship with China to be very important, getting tougher with China on trade and economic issues is also seen to be important (Pew Research Centre 2011). The anxiety is apparent with four-in-ten Americans surveyed in 2008 already considering China to be the world's leading economic power (Saad 2008), even though the US economy is still approximately twice the size of the Chinese economy, according to International Monetary Fund estimates (2011). As there is a coherent perception of threat from China between candidates and the American public, there is unlikely to be profound foreign policy change in the next presidential term.
In similar fashion, eliminating nuclear threats has been an enduring concept in US foreign policy as Americans continue to rate the proliferation of nuclear weapons as one of the greatest dangers in the world today even after the Cold War (Auxier 2010); and countries with limited nuclear capabilities like Iran and North Korea are no exception. Following IAEA reports in 2011 of further advancements in the Iranian nuclear program, the Obama administration has taken action to stop proliferation by imposing destabilising financial sanctions against Iran. With a further escalation, it warns that it will not exclude military options (The White House 2011). Other candidates share the unacceptability of a nuclear Iran, albeit showing tougher responses in stemming the threat. Newt Gingrich ultimately plans to end the threat through regime change citing that, „I think if you just take out the plants and the dictatorship stays there, the plants come back.‟ (Easley 2011). Rick Santorum‟s method, on the other hand, involves eliminating Iranian scientists, who he classifies as „enemy combatants‟ (Clifton 2011). Despite the strong rhetoric, there is a clear priority to eliminate the nuclear threat. This strong aversion to the nuclear threat reflects the support from the general public showed for tough action against recent advancements in the Iranian nuclear program. In a recent survey, nearly six-in-ten of Americans (58%) cite that it is important to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, even if it means taking military action (Pew Research Centre 2012). Once again, as the given indicators suggests, the office of the president will maintain a heavy hand on nuclear threats, however distant and limited it may be. If the 2012 presidential election is to have any impact on world affairs, it would be to decide who is to launch a successful assault to end Iranian nuclear ambitions.
It is necessary to be aware however that continuity is not absolute; emergence of political actors, movements and events such as the 9/11 can trigger sudden changes in foreign policy. Although no „game-changer‟ can be foreseen in the near future, there are several factors that will shape how US foreign policy is to be conducted in the next presidential term. Firstly, there will be many changes to leadership from overseas, none more so important than the change in Chinese leadership. Also, there will be limited capabilities for the US military after the recent defence spending cuts undertaken by the Obama administration. The president‟s capacity to undertake foreign policy will also be tested as the presidential elections co-inside with Congressional and Senate elections. Having majority support in both houses of Congress, especially the US Senate, is important for enlarging the executive branch‟s influence on foreign policy. All these factors run concurrently to the outcome of the presidential election in determining the foreign policy agenda. The office‟s resources, influence and counterparts must be noted to have an important part to play. In this sense, it is after the elections that will determine whether the president-elect will have a major impact on US foreign policy through the choices he makes in this new playing field.
Nonetheless, US presidential elections are more of a presentation of ideas and of leadership. As shown through this essay, the 2012 edition is likely to showcase the same policy priorities and objectives. This paper has presented this outlook through two enabling conditions that suggest continuity in US foreign policy, rather than a break in contemporary tradition: a coherent objective on current external threats from Iran‟s nuclear ambitions to China‟s economic rise, and on the other hand, strong domestic support in confronting these threats. It is important to recognise, however, that the president‟s capacity to lead and his/her counterparts abroad do change. If presidential elections are to have an impact on foreign policy priorities, it is therefore how the president-elect is foreseen to adapt to the office.
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- Clifton, Eli 2011, „Santorum Calls Iranian Nuclear Scientists „Enemy Combatants,‟ would target them for assassination‟, Think Progress, 21 November, viewed 17 February 2012, <http://thinkprogress.org/security/2011/11/21/373169/santorum-iran-enemy combatants/?mobile=nc>
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