President Obama has secured another four years in the Whitehouse and the hopes of the Republicans have been dashed. Like elections in most countries, this was not decided by foreign policy issues but largely by domestic concerns, such as the state of the American economy and the issue of jobs. A pole conducted by Pew in September 2012 of swing voters found that whilst 85% said that the economy was ‘very important’ to their voting preferences, only 45% were willing to say the same of foreign policy. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to dismiss the significance of foreign policy in the 2012 election as it played a role in three ways.
First, it gave Barack Obama the advantage enjoyed by all incumbent American presidents. As the ‘leader of the free world’ and America’s commander in chief, Obama benefited from the aura that surrounds the Presidency. Mitt Romney, cast in the role of challenger, had to struggle to make himself heard on international matters and to paint a coherent picture of his foreign policy priorities. This was made more difficult for him by his prior need to secure the Republican nomination. Amidst the polarised politics of the Tea Party movement, Romney had been forced to take a tough stance on issues such as America’s relations with Russia and China. Once he had obtained the nomination, he had to tack back towards the centre ground in order to appeal to a wider cross section of voters. This was exemplified in the third televised debate between Romney and Obama in Florida on October 22nd when he took notably more ‘dovish’ positions on overseas issues. This contributed to a sense that Romney was unclear about what he believed.
Second, foreign policy contributed to the wider perception that this was an election fought against a backcloth of American decline. Retrenchment in the US economy, anaemic rates of growth and a huge mountain of debt shaped the picture. This was reinforced by the foreign policy agenda. President Obama had decreed that US combat forces will be withdrawn fromAfghanistanby 2014 thereby leaving that country to face an uncertain future. Romney argued thatUSpolicy should be guided by military advice and not by a political timetable, but he did not demur from the essence of the policy. Similarly, on the issue of relations with China, both candidates spoke from the perspective of America’s vulnerability rather than its strength. Romney was more vociferous thatChinawas manipulating its currency and abusing intellectual property rights, but Obama pointed to unequal patterns of trade that left theUSat a disadvantage.
Thirdly, foreign policy issues helped to sharpen the differences between the positions of the two men. On issues such as American relations with Israel and Iran, there were important distinctions between them. Romney criticised what he saw as the Administration’s weakness towards alleged attempts by Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. He charged Obama with failing to support Israel and positioned himself as sympathetic to Israel’s threat that it might attack Iranian nuclear facilities. Obama has been more circumspect and, whilst not ruling out the threat of force, he has argued that sanctions are having the desired effect of pressuring Tehran. Now that he has won re-election he has left the door open to finding a diplomatic solution to the Iranian issue.
So whilst foreign policy issues did not determine the US presidential election, they played a part in both shaping the debate and distinguishing the candidates. Obama now has two years in which to act in foreign policy matters without the constraints of a President seeking re-election. After that, he will become the proverbial ‘lame duck’ and we will see once again a debate over the role of foreign policy in determining the next key holder of the White House.