There comes a moment in every American political convention when foreign policy is the focus and the two parties attempt to draw clear lines between their foreign policy platforms while papering over all the similarities. For the Republicans that moment was on Wednesday night, when Secretary Rice spoke, and again on Thursday when Gov. Romney accepted the nomination. History records past proclamations made for the cheering crowds: “If I am elected, America won’t be the policeman of the world/We should stand up to the butchers in Beijing/We will close Gitmo and leave Iraq.” A few months later these bold promises were abandoned and forgotten.
Things change when you actually get elected, after all.
Now that we’ve reached the close of Obama’s four-year term, It’s worth looking at what kind of foreign policy president he has been. Although most Americans are bitterly divided about Obama’s domestic policies, they give him passing marks in international affairs. And why not? There hasn’t been a major terror attack, the US hasn’t invaded another country, the world has resisted the calls for Smoot-Hawley redux, and Iran’s nuclear program, as troubling as it is, means little to Americans still struggling to make ends meet.
In fact, given the clear overlap between Obama and his predecessor, it would neither be unfair nor incorrect to say that this is the third term of George W. Bush’s foreign policy, much as George H.W. Bush’s term was the third term of Reagan’s foreign policy. The style of Bush and Obama’s diplomacy has differed considerably, yet Obama the campaigner talked a line that was far different than the record of Obama the president. Recall, of course, that Bush the campaigner promised a foreign policy that was small and modest, but after 9/11 Bush’s agenda was anything but. The point here is that while stagecraft may differ, statecraft is almost always about continuity.
Claims like this may infuriate partisans, and one imagines their retorts. “But Obama bows before foreign leaders!” And Bush held hands with despots, so what? “But Obama doesn’t waterboard!” No, he performs extralegal assassinations of American citizens. Both presidents have given Glenn Greenwald plenty of things to write about and Julian Assange many secrets to leak. Greenwald can mainly thank Obama for his new column in The Guardian, while as for Assange, well, he’s certainly not writing the president love letters from the Ecuadorian embassy.
One must admit there are a few substantive differences in stated goals of the two administrations. Obama has called for nuclear disarmament and made an early personal appeal to Arab and Muslim states, at the apparent expense of the American-Israeli relationship. Our nukes aren’t going away anytime soon, though, and the outreach to Muslim states seems but a footnote in the US’ ongoing push for regime changes in the Middle East. Bibi is a pain in the ass, but Hillary is an old friend of Israel, so policies haven’t changed much from the Bush years, only rhetoric.
The same holds for other key relationships and interests. A “managed rise” of China was on Bush’s agenda, and remains on Obama’s. Unlike Bush, Obama hasn’t given the thumbs-up to any coups in Venezuela, but the relationship with Hugo Chavez remains both prickly and cynical. (Hugo calls the US Satan, America calls him a would-be dictator, but he still sells the US oil.) Despite the mismanaged PR theater of the “reset button,” Obama never won over Russia, and the administration has come to realize that Putinism is the problem. (Bear in mind that Bush never lost Russia; the crucible of Putinism was Clinton’s wars in the Balkans.) Oddly enough, Obama seems to have focused on Africa less than Bush, perhaps because Obama has less to prove to Africa, or perhaps because he has been afraid of looking “too black.” As for the rest, the archaic embargo against Cuba remains, arms sales continue to every country that will buy weapons, and America is still dependent on foreign oil. Finally, it goes without saying that the UK remains America’s most stalwart ally, gripes about busts of Churchill notwithstanding.
A second term for Obama might change things, since he would have more flexibility and a chance to author his own foreign policy. A Romney presidency, conversely, would be destined to be like Obama’s. Keep these facts in mind this as the campaign enters the home stretch. When Obama talks about his foreign policy during the debates, remember that he stands on far more of Bush’s legacy than he’ll ever admit. And when Romney argues that he’ll make a dramatic break from the status quo, remember that he’s either lying to you or else he doesn’t yet understand what all presidents soon learn: America’s foreign policy is ruled by the consensus.
Note: This post has been adapted from a Facebook posting and edited for clarity.