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October 3, 2012 |  3 comments |  Print  Your Opinion  

US Foreign Policy After the 2012 Election

Omar El-Nahry: Today marks the first US presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. This article looks back at the foreign policy enacted under Obama’s presidency and its differences to the previous administration. Going forward, what foreign policy challenges will the new (or old) occupant face?

How much has foreign policy in the US really changed after Obama took over the Presidency? Are the cynics right in suggesting that the power politics are continuing, albeit with a much nicer face and voice hiding their true, ugly nature? And how much change can we expect after this year's election?

After the attacks of September 11th, the Bush administration appeared prepared to do what they perceived as right at any cost. From then on, the tone changed dramatically. Old allies such as France and Germany were alienated; a harsher tone towards enemies and those perceived as such was adopted; and most importantly, the US showed it was willing to find its own support or even go it alone when military action was needed. This is not to speak of a certain disregard for international norms, such as the authorization of the use of force by the UN Security Counci.

For all the perceived strength, the foreign policy of the Bush years created one thing above all: great problems for any successor. Not only had the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan left a wide soft power gap, Bush's successor would also inherit a foreign policy that was going nowhere: bogged down in two costly wars and a 'war against terrorism'. This not only put a huge strain on the US economy and stretched the United States' military resources - it constrained the conduct of foreign policy. Countries such as Iran realized that US threats were not very credible because resources were tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan, and thus vulnerable to Iranian provocation.

That Barack Obama would bring a different tone into US foreign policy was very clear. His and Hillary Clinton's foreign policy seemed more cautious and less aggressive. Multilateralism and negotiation were back on the table. The new president's approach was part of a clever rationale: With many urgent problems right at the start, Obama sought a strategic reset of US foreign policy in order to for the US to rebuild its soft power and free up hard power resources.

The disengagement from Afghanistan, but especially from Iraq, has now made a more credible front towards Iran possible. With the responsibility for security in Iraqi hands and the beginning withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Pentagon not only has more manpower and military resources available, but it is much less vulnerable to Iran creating instability in its next door neighbors in order to cripple US power. In a similar way, the White House is trying to lower the cost of the War on Terror by focussing on drone strikes against high-value targets.

Furthermore, the new administration has recognized that there are other challenges than terrorism: Pressing problems, such as a rising China and the accelerating militarization in East Asia, need to be dealt with sooner rather than later. The next decade will see Chinese hard power and influence grow significantly. China is planning an expansion of blue-water naval capabilities, a traditional tool of power projection. The "Pacific shift" of the US military is acknowledging this new challenge.

Finally, US foreign policy makers have understood that even the strongest military in the world can be pushed to its limits. This is why a more mixed set of tools is being used to deal with threats such as Iran or the changing balance of power in Asia. Negotiations and sanctions as well as cooperation with old and new allies, but also the regained ability to back up issued threats, will breathe new life into the United States' foreign policy. The current approach to foreign policy has more prudent and resource conscious. This approach, however, will need time to start showing its effects.

In the likely case that Obama is re-elected, he may reap the benefits of this policy. The Iranian crisis may be resolved without starting another devastating war; China may be checked and balanced in Asia, and old trust may be regained with America's western allies. The biggest problem the current administration faces may not so much be what it is doing outside its own country - it may be the time it takes the electorate to cut through all the distortion to understand the basic rationale of the new resource-conscious attitude in Washington.

A less certain, but more interesting event would be what Mitt Romney has planned in the realm of foreign affairs - a factor that is hard to discern behind the wall of rhetoric that seems to be a lapse back to less well-planned days. Striking Iran, for example even in a limited fashion, could have huge repercussions for all countries involved, turning back the time to being stuck in even more and even greater Middle Eastern crises. Whoever (re)enters the White House in November will find it hard to reconcile belligerent words with equally bold moves. Whoever wins the election will need to use the US' ample resources wisely - the next decade may bring more than one surprise for an American president to deal with.

Omar El-Nahry is a final year student at University College London studying European Social and Political Studies. A longer version of the article is available here.

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Rachel  Sherman

October 4, 2012

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I definitely agree that one of Obama's strength has been his foreign policy strategy, which I believe can be a strong asset in helping him win the election. In contrast, if Romney were to win I suspect we would return to a neo-conservative stance reminiscent of the Bush era with an emphasis on American unilateralism, which as recent history has witnessed, can garner high costs rather than long-term advantages for the US. In today's debate, Romney reaffirmed his commitment to increasing US defense spending which I think would ultimately work against the republican goal of deficit-reduction. Historically, US presidential campaigns have focused on domestic issues, and in light of today's economy, that will understandably hold true with this election, yet I think foreign policy could matter a lot this time especially if it proves to be a close race. With his high rankings in handling foreign matters, Obama obviously holds the advantage here. In fact, one foreign policy expert, Bruce Jentleson, has noted that 8-10 percent or more of U.S. voters consistently say that foreign policy significantly influences their vote. For a tight race, this can indeed make a difference. In addition, as you have said, Obama has steered towards multilateral approaches, which I think is critically important if the US wants to remain a dominant player in 21st century world affairs.
 
Andrea  Valencia

October 8, 2012

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In spite of our withdrawal from Afghanistan, Obama has certainly increased its popularity vote by returning American troops home thus giving the American people a sense of relief. However, now with these spare resources and the increasing tension in Iran, one is hesitant in believing that the war is over as one might be starting in the Middle-East. In case Romney was elected, giving his stance in increasing the military budget, one will think that America under Romney will be heading to another costly-war that will just keep adding to our deficit. This is where Obama has an upper-hand. By returning our troops home and deterring from straightforward military action he has brought back the U.S to more diplomatic action that centers on not just "the war on terror" but issues as China's growing economy etc. as mentioned above, thus rediscovering multilateral action. As you mentioned, we will have to wait to see what these resources and Washington's new attitude will wage on the new presidency.
 
Yeni  Castro

November 30, 2012

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The Bush Administration's intervention in Iraq was significantly a historical event in history. After being at war for a long period of time with no solid clear cut explanation why there was necessary intervention in Iraq after 9/11 one should question the real reasons behind it. Was 9/11 a false flag attack towards our nation? Was it really a terrorist attack towards the nation? The Bush Administration decided to intervene Iraq because they felt it was a threat to the rest of the world due to their nuclear weapons. However, presently under the Obama Administration it seems the tensions are not only Iraq but the rest of the Middle East. Obama gained positive feedback from the public when he was determined to bring back troops, however would be it plausible and believable the actual war is over? Recently in Pakistan, there were actual drones that killed innocent civilians with no man power. If the US government has such technology why even have the military present in these areas? The advances in technology especially for military use is increasing, but till this day there hasn't been a court ruling or any solid evidence expressed to the public for what happened on September 11,2001. Yet as the Bush and Obama Administration's main priority is to be involved in foreign affairs in the Middle East I don't see this 'take over' ending any time soon under the Obama Administration. As far as China being a threat to the United States in leadership, Chinese technology as well as economic leadership will most definitely supersede us in the long run. China is a huge global trade leader and the US owes China substantially considering they a percentage of US debt. The US govt. as well as the Obama Administration need to start focusing on more important factors domestically and focus on the infrastructure of the county instead of focusing on foreign affairs.
 

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