Will the 2012 US presidential election affect US foreign policy?

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Benjamin Mueller's picture

The 2012 presidential election in the United States will not fundamentally affect the long-term course that US foreign policy will take over the coming decades. A state's foreign policy and military capability are functions of its economic might and the idiosyncratic features of whichever political actor holds the highest office of the country. The economic structure that underpins a nation creates the context within which independent political actors set out the course of policy. Hence, political agents are only free to influence strategy as far as the structural environment that they operate in allows it. As the economic foundations of the world are shifting from West to East, so the pre-eminent power of our time – the United States – has already started the process of long-term strategic adaptation to this phenomenon.

 There is bipartisan consensus in the United States that the financial burden which the defence budget imposes upon the economy has become unsustainably large, and that controlling the government deficit is as much a matter of military as of fiscal prudence. The US armed forces are facing a period of real budget cuts mixed with reduced spending increases at the very least over the next decade. The military will shed personnel and become leaner, interventions will be fewer, more targeted, and more restrained in scope, and the reach of US global commitments will be reduced and re-focused away from Europe towards the Pacific region with an increased reliance on burden-sharing with alliances. The difference between the two presidential candidates will lie in their approach to reducing the US defence budget (i.e. their respective ratios of real cuts versus reducing future spending), their willingness to intervene militarily abroad, and the line they will pursue in diplomatic negotiations, both with enemy states as well as potential challengers to US pre-eminence.

Thus, the foreign policy differences between the two candidates stand solely at the margin of what has become the consensus policy base: after ten years of large-scale military expansion and multiple parallel overseas interventions, a sea-change in the world balance of economic power is pushing the United States to scale back its military ambitions in line with its relative economic decline. Radical alternatives proposed by the extreme ends of both parties – such as a turn to ‘splendid isolation’, or a broad military expansion to counter challenges to US hegemony – are confined to the fringes of the policy debate.

In 2008 and 2009, the United States underwent the Great Recession, its worst economic downturn since the Depression in the 1930s. This has profoundly dented the fiscal position of the country: levels of public debt held are at their largest since the end of World War II. Because of this, one of the overriding policy priorities during the next presidential term faced by whoever is sworn into office on Inauguration Day in 2013 will be the reduction of the debt burden of the United States. Since spending on defence has more than doubled post-9/11, US military outlays will by logical necessity see either reduced increases or real reductions during the next years, as the government proceeds to get its fiscal house in order. Already, President Obama has unveiled a new defence strategy that includes a 1% defence budget cut, coupled with half a trillion dollars worth of budget savings by 2022. Were Congressional negotiations on raising the US national debt ceiling to fail, a further $600bn of automatic defence budget cuts will become law. Even if a Republican candidate wins the 2012 election, he would not be able to reverse this course: given the extent of the US budgetary shortfall, any inherited cut of discretionary spending of such proportions sets a heavily path-dependent course for deficit reduction. The initial $1tn military budget cut will be too substantial a starting point, which can only be reversed at the cost of painful – potentially crippling - cuts to other areas of federal spending.

 Thus, the idiosyncratic leeway of the next President – be he the incumbent, or the Republican candidate – is severely restricted by the extraordinarily tight budgetary constraints that have been brought about by the Great Recession. The withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan by 2014 will continue under either potential President, as troop reductions are already underway. The immediate area of future hostility involving US forces is the Gulf of Persia, where pressure from NATO and Israel on Iran is increasing over the refusal of the Islamic Republic to give up its nuclear programme. A nuclear-armed Iran is a red line that NATO will not cross: too great is the destabilising impact of that scenario on the Middle East, too unshakeable is America's commitment to Israel as the sole liberal democratic outpost in the entire region for any President to risk the survival of its ally posed by a nuclear-armed Iran. Therefore, US participation in any military strike to prevent a nuclear Iran is inevitable, no matter who is Commander-in-Chief. Of course, it is in the execution of military strategy that political actors possess a large degree of freedom. President Obama's preference for limited, Special Forces-driven rapid intervention may well differ from whichever strategy of action a Republican President would embark upon. The point is that both Presidents would intervene militarily if Iran does not change its course: that priority is unchangeable – only how the US goes about executing it is contingent on the office-holder.

 US foreign policy values are relatively constant, driven-by the country's long-term commitment to the liberal world order that it set up at great cost after World War II in an attempt to counter the threat of aggression emanating from the USSR. That policy of active worldwide engagement – primarily through NATO – to build and defend a liberal democratic sphere has been a remarkable common denominator in foreign policy under all US Presidents since Truman. Individual Presidents may have influenced the precise colouring of the strategy, but the underlying momentum behind US foreign policy since 1945 has changed little.

 Every now and again, particular moments have arisen that allowed particular Presidents to seize the initiative and dramatically steer the course of US foreign policy into a particular direction: Truman's intervention in Greece, Kennedy's prevention of Soviet nuclear weapons being based in the US’ backyard, Nixon's withdrawal from Vietnam and sudden engagement with China, Reagan's reversal of détente and increase of military pressure against the Soviet Union, and the Bushes' invasions of Iraq all pose examples where Presidents individually and dramatically created and shaped US foreign policy priorities. All these examples, however, are of when Presidents seized opportunities presented to them and forcefully pushed policy into a particular direction: once such a presidential choice during a brief window of opportunity sets the strategic trajectory, subsequent office-holders rarely reverse course, for reasons of institutional inertia. Crucially, the important strategic initiative that outlines the broad content of US foreign policy goals over the coming years has already been taken: the Great Recession and the subsequent reduction in US economic resources, coupled with military over-extension after 9/11, has necessitated Obama's reduction of US defence capabilities out of budgetary prudence. No serious Republican contender for the presidential nomination will be able to change this: too clear are the fiscal fundamentals that drove Obama's foreign policy watershed.

 The liberal order that the United States set up at Bretton Woods, envisioning a globally integrated trade system governed by transnational institutions, laid the groundwork for an unprecedented period of globalisation. This enabled China to embark on a path of economic growth that will see it challenging American hegemony, certainly in the economic and diplomatic spheres. Against the backdrop of Chinas' rise, whoever is the next President will continue to oversee a shift of America's foreign policy focus away from the Eurasian landmass towards the Asia-Pacific region. That, and the need to get America's economic house in order so as to preserve as much of US dominance as is possible, sets out an inflexible framework. Foreign policy priorities will move away from defending Europe and regime change in the Middle East, towards preventing nuclear proliferation and checking the rise of China. The fact that China is a nuclear nation and a major creditor of the United States means tension in that relationship is unlikely to escalate dramatically in the near future.

 The only real foreign policy proposals that would bring about a fundamental shift in US foreign policy are for the US to disengage from its military commitments around the world and return into post-Wilsonian isolationism, or for an aggressive US military renaissance involving the active defence of interests abroad and systematic re-militarization in order to stave off any challenge to American hegemony. Both of these policy shake-ups are, for the moment at least, at most fringe phenomena without the backing of any kind of large-scale political movement. It is for the reasons outlined above that the 2012 presidential election will not fundamentally alter the strategic re-orientation that has commenced under President Obama.