Election 2012 and Foreign Policy: On the Table or In the Dust?

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The two major presidential candidates: Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. Image from Christian Science Monitor.

As a presidential election year rolls around again, responsible voters must once again evaluate candidates’ positions against their own. While it is easy to get lost in the myriad issues trumpeted by both major candidates, their campaign teams, and the media, any eligible voter who respects his or her constitutional rights as an American citizen has the responsibility to carefully consider each candidate’s positions on all relevant issues, and then decide based on thoughtful personal convictions. With the wide spectrum of issues at stake, certain topics are undoubtedly going to receive more media attention than others. Additionally, each voter undoubtedly cares more about certain issues than others. This freedom to choose what to care about from a basket of choices is a natural and even praiseworthy aspect of a true democracy. It is still important, however, to remember that this November is the closest most citizens will come to personally influencing U.S. policy and that there are both foreign and domestic issues at stake. Since both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have a high likelihood of directing U.S. foreign policy over the next four years, voters have a responsibility to evaluate their stances on various issues such as nuclear proliferation, instability in the Middle East, U.S. involvement in Asia, etc. Unfortunately, as voters try to navigate through a labyrinth of emotionally charged campaign rhetoric and mudslinging, identifying firm and specific policy positions for each candidate is difficult.

On the subject of foreign policy, for instance, the Romney campaign has issued what can best be described as a conglomerate of self-contradicting policy ideas that nevertheless evoke a feeling of “toughness” against antagonistic foreign powers, what New York Times writer David Sanger half-jokingly refers to as the “Romney Doctrine.” The Obama campaign, on the other hand, has remained relatively quiet on the foreign policy front, touting only the winding down of U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, while letting current policies speak for other issues. A more detailed explanation of the Republican candidate’s views can be found on Mr. Romney’s website, but the following are a few examples of the Republican candidate’s hard stance.

In dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Romney plans to show Iran that “the military option is on the table” by increasing military coordination with Israel and Arab allies in the region while implementing a tougher round of economic sanctions. Iran is not the only country that will face a tougher U.S. president should Romney get elected because Romney also plans to discourage China and Russia from “aggressive behavior” by courting relations with nations bordering the two respective countries. This hard rhetoric might appeal to some voters who view America as becoming too soft in its international role, but unfortunately, Romney is not clear on how his suggestions would resolve tensions and conflicts in reality. The real international environment is complicated. Increasing military coordination with Israel, for instance, would likely alienate potential Arab allies. Furthermore, confronting China and Russia on their authoritarian governments (issues both countries view as exclusively domestic issues) might also discourage the two powers from cooperating with the United States in another round of sanctions on Iran. Only time in office and implementation of these campaign promises will show if Romney’s ideas actually could work, but, for now, the foreign policy future of a Romney presidency is unclear.

Although Romney’s foreign policy plans are still rather untested, voters basically know what to expect from another four years with Barack Obama. With Obama in office for another four years, voters can expect continued tension and few breakthroughs on longstanding issues such as Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear proliferation, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, China’s growing influence in Asia, etc. A thorough analysis of all of Obama’s policy successes and failures is beyond the scope of this article, but in general, perhaps, it is safe to quote an article from Foreign Affairs that describes Obama’s foreign policy strategy as “sensible and serious but not pathbreaking.” Of course, there are problematic elements in Obama’s policy that cannot be ignored. As Romney has so aptly pointed out regarding the withdrawal from Afghanistan set for 2014, it is “misguided” to tell enemies of the United States the date that U.S. combat troops will pull out.

All in all, both major candidates have foreign policy strengths and flaws. Which candidate has a stronger plan is a decision up to each individual voter. Because the choice of who to vote for is a personal decision, voters are also free to decide that foreign policy is not the most important issue, especially when there are also questions of taxation, healthcare, and social values to be asked. Foreign policy, however, will play into even the most U.S.-centric concerns about the economy and national security. How the United States interacts with other countries over the next four years will affect trade, financial institutions, terrorism, and military conflict. Ultimately, each voter assigns a different weight to each issue. The important thing is to take both domestic and foreign policy issues into consideration before making a final, well-considered decision. Thinking is the least an American voter can do to honor the principles for which this country stands.

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