There is hardly a better time to look at the potential foreign
policy of the two presidential hopefuls than during these last weeks of July.
While John McCain quarrels with the New
York Times over his rejected editorial on Iraq policy, Barack Obama is
roaming the Middle East and Europe - eager for pictures with presidents and
prime ministers - to polish up his rather limited foreign policy credentials.
It is no surprise that the "image tour" of the young senator from Illinois is
attracting extensive media coverage; all three of the major US networks'
anchors are going to cover the Obama trip from overseas. When John McCain
undertook a very similar journey only some weeks ago, the attention was
significantly smaller because of two reasons. First, Obama's trip is quite a
novelty for he has not travelled much, while McCain is no stranger at all in
diplomatic circles. Second, Obama enjoys much more sympathy abroad and is being
received like a rock star by the public. According to a recent poll by the Daily Telegraph, a large majority of
Western Europeans would vote for Obama if they could. But is the hope put into
Obama really justified? Could we really expect a major change in US foreign
policy if he was elected and substantial differences to foreign policy under
The answer, sadly, is no. Without a doubt, a President Obama would considerably increase the positive perception of the US abroad - as the poll mentioned above already indicates - because he seems to be a "clear cut" with the unloved Bush administration. Concerning actual policy, however, the cut with his predecessor would be much smaller than Europeans are hoping for. Certainly, Obama would be likely to place more emphasis on multilateral institutions and increased dialogue than Bush did. But at the same time, like he already indicated in his speech in Berlin, he would also ask for more European involvement, especially in Afghanistan, whether Europeans like it or not. Although McCain might be more willing to act unilaterally, he would ask for increased participation by the "partners" on the other side of the Atlantic, too. In comparison, Obama could be in a better position to ask for more European involvement due to the sympathy he enjoys, the demands, however, will not be much different. In that regard, the biggest difference between Obama and McCain are the expectations of the Europeans that everything would be different under Obama.
Concerning foreign economic policy, a President Obama might also not be as wonderful as we assume. Although transatlantic economic integration has reached a level of depth that makes it almost immune to political discord, Obama's inclination to apply protectionist measures might hamper progress in the transatlantic business dialogue. Such scenarios are less likely under John McCain, who is an outspoken free trader. Nevertheless, Obama's rhetoric, which caters to the desires of the working class and the unions in the campaign season, would not materialize anywhere near as harshly as it may sound. Equally, McCain might not turn out to be the free trader that he pretends to be, especially when a Democratic Congress puts the respective pressure on him.
Campaign rhetoric never fully translates into factual foreign policy, because the president's freedom to maneuver is limited due to institutional constraints as well as political pressures. While political pressure is manifold and can come from many groups, from the military to specific industries, institutional pressure is concentrated in Congress. No major foreign policy decision, be it of economic or strategic nature, can be made by the president without the consent of the legislative branch. Having learned from its own mistakes during the Bush administration, when legislative oversight duties were neglected and the administration was given too much leeway, Congress will now make sure to reign in the president once again. To assume that this would hit a Republican harder than a Democrat, because the Democrats have and will most likely expand their majority in both houses, would be entirely wrong. Barack Obama does not have the strongest standing among his former colleagues in the Senate, the decisive chamber with regard to foreign policy, while no one - except for Teddy Kennedy maybe - knows the workings of the Senate better than John McCain, who has good relations to politicians on both sides of the aisle.
Overall, neither Barack Obama nor John McCain will be able to bring about a dramatic shift in US foreign policy. However, ironically, with Obama as president, European disillusionment is likely to be even bigger. No one expects significant course corrections by John McCain; but it will be painful for the European public and the media alike to realize that even if the young advocator of change wins the White House, US foreign policy will turn out to be more of the same. Just recently, Obama supporter Fareed Zakaria, Newsweek International editor and columnist for the Washington Post, defended his man as a "realist" and a "conservative" in foreign policy. Well, but then, where are the "vision" and the "change"?
Dr. Matthias Fifka is assistant professor at the University Erlangen-Nürnberg and deputy director of the German-American Institute Nürnberg. He is doing research on US politics and US foreign policy as well as on international organizations (NATO, WTO, EU) and Corporate Governance.
Related materials from the Atlantic Community:
- Ruediger Lentz: A New Political Messiah?
- Anne Applebaum: The Most Popular American in Europe Since Elvis
- Obama in Europe: Continuity We Can Believe In