It is hard to look at the choice American voters will be making this November and not conclude that, for foreign policy, the consequences will be substantial. Think of how different a Romney administration (or a Gingrich or Santorum one) would be from an Obama administration when it comes to divisive questions of foreign affairs. Just look at what Mitt Romney said in one Republican debate: "If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. … If you elect me as the next president, they will not."
But such thinking downplays the similarities among would-be presidents and underestimates how difficult it is to actually change U.S. foreign policy. Those fearing foreign-policy about-faces (or hoping for them) can stop holding their breath: whoever wins the U.S. election this year, America's foreign policy priorities will stay the same.
No candidate would like to believe that his or her election is immaterial to America's international posture. In fact, however, American political parties have tended to find common ground on foreign policy, suggesting that which party is in power doesn't matter that much. Almost every military engagement since the controversial War of 1812 enjoyed bipartisan support at the beginning. Even the Vietnam War, which both parties later came to hate, was popular early on; Congress passed the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution almost unanimously. The Iraq War, though eventually polarizing, was authorized by wide margins in the House and Senate. One can even made the case that a hypothetical Al Gore administration would have invaded Iraq; although Gore later criticized the way in which the war was conducted, he supported the general idea at first, recommending in 2002 that the United States "organize an international coalition to eliminate [Saddam Hussein's] access to weapons of mass destruction."
Today, Republicans and Democrats still agree on the broad contours of American foreign policy. Both parties support aggressively pursuing terrorists around the world. Both want to encourage the Arab Spring. Both think Washington should strike a balance between confronting China and cooperating with it economically. Both call for winding down the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. There are real disagreements, to be sure, but they pale in comparison to those over domestic policies—such as healthcare, taxes, the environment, and abortion—which could not be sharper. For the most part, politics really does stop at the water's edge.
Even if a president holds truly different views on foreign affairs, he cannot necessarily translate them into a meaningfully different foreign policy. After all, his choices are constrained by a wide range of factors, domestic and international.
Consider the bureaucratic constraints. In the United States, foreign policy is principally carried out by the Pentagon and the State Department—large, complex institutions that move slowly. New administrations fill the top of bureaucracies with their own political appointees, but the bulk of these organizations don't change, which means that, for the most part, neither do their policies. And these bureaucracies have interests of their own. Even if voters somehow sent Ron Paul to the White House, for example, it's hard to imagine he could get Congress to slash military spending drastically, as he has called for. The military-industrial complex would not die quietly.
Then there are the political obstacles. A president is answerable to a number of constituents: voters, Congress, interest groups, the media, and many more. These factions limit the range of foreign policy choices he can make. Want to end the Cuban embargo? Good luck winning Florida's electoral votes. Think a strike against Iran should be taken off the table? Prepare to be pilloried by columnists as an appeaser. Planning on scrapping a fighter jet program? The Congressional representative from the district where it is built would like a word with you.
There are budgetary constraints, too. As the U.S. national debt keeps growing, the country will have a harder time funding its ambitious global military role. In that era of austerity, as the political scientist Michael Mandelbaum writes, "the public will insist more strongly than at any time since before World War II on using its dollars for domestic, rather than international, purposes." Already, the government has had to make budget cuts—$450 billion over 10 years—that will shrink the size of the U.S. Army. No longer will the United States be able wage massive counterinsurgency campaigns simultaneously, as it has done in Afghanistan and Iraq.
By the time all these domestic constraints are added up, the president begins to look almost powerless. But international actors also limit presidents' freedom of action, making it even harder to see how the outcome of the next election will dramatically alter U.S. foreign policy. Even though the United States is the most powerful country in the world, it can't always get what it wants.
Put differently, America's choices on the international stage are only partly a consequence of its own preferences; they also depend on other countries' decisions. Policy towards North Korea, for example, depends not only on what American officials think but also on what their North Korean counterparts do. If Pyongyang gets more aggressive in the future, Washington will likely respond with greater pressure; if Pyongyang shows signs of cooperation, Washington will ratchet it down. In that example, North Korea's calculations don't depend on who occupies the Oval Office, and neither do America's.
Indeed, the main reason for continuity is that the United States' core interests are immutable—no matter who wins in November. In the Persian Gulf, the United States cares about the free flow of oil. If Iran were to follow through with its threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, any U.S. administration would send the Navy's Fifth Fleet to keep it open. The United States also wants stability in the Asia-Pacific region, and its ships will continue to keep Chinese influence there at bay throughout 2012 and beyond. America will keep a wary eye on Russia, too, preserving missile-defense systems in Eastern Europe and hoping Vladimir Putin's tightening grip on power gives way to more democratic forces.
In the Middle East, America wants to promote stability and political progress. So it will continue its policy of supporting the pro-democracy movements behind the Arab Spring without micromanaging the revolutions, intervening only when it looks like rebel groups are capable of taking over. (This is why the United States intervened in Libya but has yet to do so in Syria.) In Afghanistan and Pakistan, stability is also the name of the game, and Washington will try to extricate itself from the region militarily while retaining counter-terrorism capabilities there.
Republicans and Democrats may disagree with the exact form all these policies will take, but they do not disagree about the policies themselves. That's because they flow directly from America's global interests, which won't vary in 2012 or anytime soon. In the long run, of course, these interests may begin to change. But they will do so in reaction to events on the ground and shifts in global power, not American politics.
Skeptics of this argument insist that the Republican presidential candidates are unlike Obama. They have all promised to do things differently once they take power. But campaign pledges are a poor predictor of in-office policy. Events change, and the president is not bound by his past rhetoric. Remember, it was candidate George W. Bush who said in 2000, "I don't think our troops ought to be used for what's called nation building." Five months before joining World War I, Woodrow Wilson coasted to reelection in 1916 on the slogan "he kept us out of war."
Admittedly, the case for stasis is counterintuitive. It goes against the popular "great-man" theory of history as biography. But presidents are in fact less powerful than they—or we—believe. In an essay against the great-man view of history, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin asked, "What are great men?" His answer: "They are ordinary human beings, who are ignorant and vain enough to accept responsibility for the life of society, individuals who would rather take the blame for all the cruelties, injustices, disasters justified in their name, than recognize their own insignificance and impotence in the cosmic flow which pursues its course irrespective of their wills and ideals." But don't tell the candidates that.
- "Romney, Gingrich at GOP debate: We'd go to war to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons," CBS News, November 12, 2011. Available online at http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-57323686-503544
- Al Gore, "Iraq and the War on Terrorism." Speech to the Commonwealth Club of California, San Francisco, California, September 23, 2002. Available online at http://www.gwu.edu/~action/2004/gore/gore092302sp.html2302sp.html.
- Michael Mandelbaum, "Overpowered," Foreign Affairs, May/June 2010.
- Max Boot, "Slashing America's Defense: A suicidal Trajectory," Commentary, January 2012.
- Transcript of October 11, 2000, debate between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Available online at: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2000/10/11/politics/main240442.shtml
- See Robert A. Segal, Hero Myths: A Reader (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000), 4.
- Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1953), p. 27.