The first of four American presidential and vice-presidential debates will be
held on October 3.
In an election so far dominated by domestic issues,
the debate season will give many voters their first real glimpse of the key
foreign policy differences between the Republican team of Mitt Romney and Paul
Ryan, and the Democratic ticket of Barack Obama and Joe Biden.
a decade after 9/11, a critical mass of the electorate believes America should
engage more cautiously in foreign affairs. This sentiment is likely to have been
reinforced, in the mind of many voters, by the tragic murder in September of
four of their countrymen in Libya, and the ongoing protests in numerous
Muslim-majority countries at an anti-Islamic film originating in
Perhaps the key exception to this national mood of foreign
policy caution is Iran. Here, some polls show sizeable American public support
for international efforts to prevent Tehran developing nuclear weapons, even if
that necessitates American military action.
Iran is just one of the
international issues on which Romney has articulated a more assertive posture
than Obama. Others examples include Russia, which Romney has declared
Washington’s “number one” geopolitical foe, and China, which the Republican
nominee has accused of stealing US technology and intellectual property, and of
currency manipulation – with the implicit threat of sanctions should he become
Given the apparent differences between the two candidates, and
the large stakes, many audiences beyond the American border are showing keen
interest in the election. According to a Pew Global Attitudes Project report
from June, more than a third of the populations of countries as diverse as
Britain, Germany, Jordan, Lebanon, China, India and Japan are either “closely or
somewhat closely” following the campaign.
As in 2008, international
publics tend to favor Obama’s reelection. But there has been a marked decline in
international approval of his policies since he took office.
Pew, the fall-off in support for the president’s policies has been a massive 30
percentage points between 2009 and 2012 in China (from 57% to 27%); in several
key European countries including Britain, France, Germany, Spain and Poland, the
average reduction in support is 15 percentage points (from 78% to a still high
63%); and in numerous key Muslim- majority countries (including Egypt, Jordan,
Lebanon, Pakistan and Turkey), the average fall-off is 19 percentage points from
an already low 34% to 15 percent.
At least part of the decline in Obama’s
numbers since 2009 was inevitable inasmuch as international expectations about
him where unrealistically high when he entered the White House. Two of the main
international criticisms of his foreign policy (as was the case with the Bush
administration’s) are over-reliance on “hard power,” and also
Despite Obama’s withdrawal of American troops from Iraq,
and his commitment to a similar military pull-out in Afghanistan, there has been
much international criticism for instance of his administration’s use of
unmanned, remotely-flown aircraft to kill terrorists.
In 17 of the 20
countries surveyed by Pew, more than half of voters disagree with the use of
these drone attacks.
These international numbers can only be expected to
fall further if Romney wins in November and follows through on his assertive
foreign policy rhetoric.
This could be amplified by the fact that he
enjoys less personal popularity overseas than Obama.
A key question is
whether Obama and Romney should care about what the rest of the world
After all, no foreign citizens will vote in November.
short answer is “yes.”
Some in America completely dismiss the importance
of international opinion. Such short-sightedness neglects the crucial role it
can play in facilitating foreign policy co-operation and information sharing
with Washington, both overt and covert.
Many of the diverse foreign
policy challenges facing America today require extensive international
collaboration, especially at a time of budgetary cutbacks. As key members of the
Obama team have asserted, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, such
cooperation can be enabled by American policy demonstrating a better combination
of soft power (including diplomacy that generates admiration rather than
antagonism) and prudent use of hard power.
Combining hard and soft power
more effectively (into what is now called smart power) was well understood by
previous generations of American policymakers.
For instance, Washington
skillfully used both assets after the Second World War to cultivate support for
a system of alliances and institutions, such as NATO, the IMF, World Bank and
the UN, that subsequently became a cornerstone of Western success in the second
half of the century.
To be sure, today’s world is very different from
that of the Cold War. But the need for smart power endures.
mood of the American electorate, the development of a comprehensive, coherent
and well resourced smart power strategy will not win many votes for either Obama
or Romney in November.
Nonetheless, this should be a pressing concern for
both candidates if they are to fulfill their similar pledges to renew the
country’s world leadership for a new generation.
The writer is an
associate partner at ReputationInc. He was formerly America Editor at Oxford
Analytica, and a special adviser in the British Government of Prime Minister