The new American right is displaying a woeful disregard for foreign policy…
What will be the big question and narrative dominating the 2012 US presidential election? At present (and barring extreme events) it isn’t hard to imagine the race now – Democrats and Republicans pummelling each other over how many ways there are to say:
it’s the economy stupid
Significantly however this isn’t just because we are living through possibly the biggest crisis of global economics ever. But because the US is gripped by a rising tide of political philistinism that venerates Manichean thinking and withdrawal of engagement from the rest of the world.
I of course refer to the Taxed Enough Already party and the rabid right wing discourse it has succeeded in consuming the Republican Party with and is now soon to have its first chance to plunge a presidential election to an intellectual standard that must gaze up to glimpse lowest common denominator status.
The Republican primaries have been a glimpse what is to come: nothing but inflammatory (whilst simultaneously vacuous) rhetoric blaming too much government and too much Obama Socialism for too few jobs and not enough American power.
The New York Times recently picked up the lack of foreign policy as a feature of the Republican debating platform, and the party front runner Mitt Romney attempted to address this point, whilst using it to consolidate his position as the only sane candidate in a speech to army cadets at the military college in Charleston, S.C.
The most striking aspect of the weekend’s event (far and above any actual policy) was the sympathy aroused for the sheer thankless task facing the man. In his endeavour to win the Republican nomination as the man best placed to debate ideas with President Obama and win moderate voters he is hamstrung by being unable to persue (or even suggest pursuing) a moderate foreign policy by the need to placate the far right.
When asked how Romney foreign policy would differ to Bush foreign policy the best an aide could manage was a bumbling:
Clearly the governor recognizes the importance of soft power resources. On the other hand it’s not all soft power.
Whilst it was then revealed the impressive sounding fifty person foreign affairs team was dominated by former Bush veterans Cofer Black, Michael Chertoff and Christopher Burnham
Although Mr Romney failed to present an inspiring (or coherent) vision for global America we shouldn’t write him off or immediately or panic for the future of geopolitical balance for this failure alone. George Bush senior famously described himself as “not good at the vision thing” before masterfully overseeing the velvet revolution of the former states of the Soviet Union after all.
What should have us deeply worried is the introverted narrative the Tea Party has forced to the centre of American politics. The ridiculous black and white thinking previously confined only to Fox news pundits has resulted in the ridiculous situation where Barrack Obama can be portrayed as weak on national security issues by following a policy of engagement with foreign nations, as opposed to the unilateral cowboy foreign policy of George W Bush.
The Bush presidency should have taught Americans to pay more attention to the rest of the world and beware the dangers they let themselves in for if they accept Disney-fied interpretations of international relations. I.e. America and all with it are good and anybody against it or just different are bad. It should also be remembered that it was Bush’s lack of a foreign policy that first had critics needling him as ‘dumb’.
Bush fought his election campaign promising an end to the adventurist foreign policies of Bill Clinton, preferring not to waist American money around the globe in places most decent folks had never heard of. It is either tragedy or farce worthy of Shakespeare that the Republicans will again be fighting for the Whitehouse using this language.
What is more disturbing I suggest is that if the Republicans recapture the Whitehouse the new president will be coming to the job in a foreign policy vacuum just as Bush did. It was the lack of an individual foreign policy that made Bush so susceptible to the calamitous Neo Con response to 9/11 which the likes of Paul Wolfowitz had to hand readymade.
Political vacuums necessitate filling, and when the next crisis strikes America if its president does not possess a foreign policy of their own they will grasp for one close to hand and ready to use from the box just as Bush did. The world is a vastly complex place populated by people whose motivations and passions cannot be put in good and evil boxes, and it doesn’t make you a squeamish liberal intellectual to admit this. Despite all his faults (and I will paraphrase to protect him from the worst of himself here) even Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged this through his references to “unknown unknown’s”.
It is an interesting quirk of American politics that foreign policy is perhaps the key to how a US president is perceived in office and remembered out of it. Jimmy Carter is the only president for over a century to not have presided over foreign wars and is popularly remembered as one of the worst presidents in the nation’s history (although that opinion is starting to be revised). A nation as powerful as the US is by necessity an impact player on the global stage. All American citizens appreciate this (in their own way) and this puts certain expectations, some would say unrealistic ones, on US presidents.
Barrack Obama still enjoys high approval rates outside the US, despite wide spread recognition of his foreign policy as a disappointment that has come nowhere near the phenomenal expectation laid upon him by winning a Nobel peace prize in advance. Obama’s foreign policy is most remarkable for what he has failed to achieve; to close Guantanamo; to meaningfully reform relations with Castro’s Cuba, and to tackle Israel over settlements and renew the peace process. Is Obama’s global standing a result of him simply not being George W Bush?
Possibly, but I suggest this is not all there is to it. Rather I suggest it is because although Obama has largely been unsuccessful he has clearly articulated an inspiring vision of an America that is a responsible global citizen and has tried to bring it about. With his failure in part being the tenacious opposition he has been faced with at home.
The United States appears to be faced with two choices. The global crises from the banking crash to Middle East turmoil to combating climate change require genuine leadership to navigate. The US can provide this. But only if it accepts it can benefit from other nations and that international relations is not a one way zero sums game, with gains by one nation necessarily equating to losses by another.
Alternatively it can opt for refusing to understand the world or to learn from it; instead adopting a twisted logic where America retains its status as the world’s premier nation but accepts none of the responsibilities such a status brings upon it.
Chris Smith holds an MA in International Relations, and has spent three years volunteering for the Green Party