The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Meet the new boss…


March 3, 2008

A focus on foreign policy has returned to the campaign, and the Washington Post had an telling series of articles yesterday and today on what the next President might do in the Foreign Policy arena. A column in Sunday’s Outlook section speculated on what lies ahead:

The next president will inherit a turbulent, intractable world that sharply constrains the room for creative new U.S. initiatives, according to many foreign policy experts of varying ideological persuasions. Despite the sharp campaign jousting, it’s not hard to imagine the next president – even a Democrat – pursuing basically the same set of policies as Bush has in recent years on such big subjects as North Korea’s nuclear program, Arab-Israeli peace talks, development and conflict in Africa, Russia’s increasing belligerence and China’s integration into the world.

“The truth is, a combination of realities . . . make a certain degree of continuity more likely than not,” [Kurt] Campbell told me.

Philip Zelikow, a University of Virginia professor who served for two years as counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, echoed that thought. Obama and Clinton’s “critique in general of the administration, aside from Iraq, is we are going to be more competent and collegial,” he said. “They don’t really debate many of the underlying premises of the administration’s current policies.”

This may come as a surprise and a shock to fans of the candidates, all of whom have distanced themselves from the current administration. Even McCain has been critical of Bush to demonstrate his independence on key issues such as Iraq or terrorism, though admittedly not nearly as critical as Clinton or Obama. Regardless, those expecting that campaign criticisms presage a break with the past across the board in US Foreign Policy should temper their expectations.

[H]istory also tells us to be cautious about using campaign rhetoric to predict how presidents will operate on the world stage. In 1992, Bill Clinton famously attacked George H.W. Bush for coddling “the butchers of Beijing,” only to revert to the long-term U.S. strategy of patiently trying to engage China. In 2000, George W. Bush sharply condemned Clinton’s approach to “nation-building” — only to engage, in Iraq and Afghanistan, in two of the biggest nation-building projects in U.S. history.

Here’s another good reason to be dubious about grandiose promises of foreign policy change: Bush himself has shifted course. After his wholesale repudiation of all things Clinton in his more ideologically charged first term, Bush moved to reorient his foreign policy along more traditional, realist lines, experts say. He has opened nuclear negotiations with North Korea, sought to repair frayed relations with key European allies, backed off from pressuring friendly Arab regimes such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia to democratize, and made a new diplomatic offer to Iran over its nuclear program. So far, he has resisted pressure to open a third war front by bombing Iranian nuclear facilities.

Today’s paper has a full profile of Obama’s foreign policy team and his major foreign policy positions. The Post’s analysis:

Yet for all the criticisms leveled at Obama, and his own professions of being the candidate of change, most of the policies outlined in his speeches, in the briefing papers issued by his campaign and in the written answers he gave to questions submitted by The Washington Post fall well within the mainstream of Democratic and moderate Republican thinking. On a number of issues, such as the Middle East peace process, Obama advocates a continuation of Bush administration policies but promises more energetic and intense presidential involvement.

Now, this expose might come as a surprise and shock to those up to their eyeballs in campaign horse-race coverage, but none of this should surprise anyone familiar with IR theory. All the major IR theories have a strong structural bias, that is to say, the ability of any one individual to shift world politics ranges from not at all to rather limited. The most liberal of foreign policy analysis theories suggest that a different President would make different policy choices, but the menu of those choices and the resulting pay-off matrix changes little from administration to administration. No presidential candidate can alter the international balance of power, and all strands of realism say that the pressures of power politics will, largely, push any president onto the same path. Even constructivists, who celebrate agency, still acknowledge that though president’s may make history, they will be doing so in circumstances not of their own making (yes, nod to Marx there….). The norms, rules, and identities that constrain and enable world politics don’t change with one Presidential election—developing new norms and identities takes and effort, limiting the number of changes any President can make.

Ergo, IR theory, writ large, suggests continuity on a wide range of key foreign policy issues. This should be neither a surprise to any observer nor a detriment to any candidate. It’s the

“combination of realities . . . make a certain degree of continuity more likely than not”

What is certain to change is the tone of US foreign policy. Obama certainly sounds different than Bush. Bush is, simply, unpopular around the world, and Obama gives one heck of a good speech. The question is: Does that really matter, and how much?

I think that the answer is that it does (after some reflection, I think my scholarship naturally leads me to this answer), and I’m hoping to have a post in the near future spelling out my reason why.

+ posts

Dr. Peter Howard focuses on US foreign policy and international security. He studies how the implementation of foreign policy programs produces rule-based regional security regimes, conducting research in Estonia on NATO Expansion and US Military Exchange programs and South Korea on nuclear negotiations with North Korea.