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Presidential debates, round 2: Obama vs Romney on foreign policy

Publication Date : 17-10-2012


The US presidential race is now in the home stretch with fewer than four weeks to go.

These past two weeks have seen a rebranding of Republican candidate Mitt Romney, away from rigid, ideological positions and towards a moderate and centrist stance on a wide range of economic and social issues. These include healthcare, social security, contraception and abortion, tax and budget issues, immigration policy with respect to young illegal immigrants (many of whom were born in the US), and support for the poor, the aged and other vulnerable groups of the estimated 47 per cent of the population left out by the Romney 0.1 Brand. Romney 0.2 will be kinder, more compassionate, moderate, bipartisan and flexible, with the details - costing and public finances - to be worked out after the election.

Whether or not one believes in Romney 0.2, there is one positive aspect to the rebranding, with Romney's commanding performance over President Obama in the presidential debate on October 3.

Romney last week laid out his vision for US foreign policy, conspicuously absent in the campaign until now. A serious discussion of US foreign policy is welcomed by those of us who think of ourselves as world citizens.

The speech in question was delivered at the Virginia Military Institute, about 300 kilometres from Washington, DC. It was billed as the candidate's first major foreign-policy speech. Romney highlighted the areas in which he differed with Obama's foreign policy, citing the president's "arbitrary" defence-spending cuts, his "lack of a trade agenda", and his "passivity" in the Middle East.

The first two areas of criticism do not stand up to what has actually happened or will happen. Decrying cuts to defence spending played well to a partisan audience keen on hearing how the president is weak on defence. The truth however is that the across-the-board discretionary spending cuts, including defence, will come about as part of the budget sequestration process if, as is likely, Congress fails to reach agreement on the budget for fiscal year 2013. This is part of the bipartisan agreement related to the passage of the "debt ceiling" legislation last year. More important, Romney's unwillingness to critically review defence spending is based on a Cold War mindset.

When it comes to the criticism that the Obama administration lacks a trade agenda, the facts suggest otherwise. The administration has actually concluded three trade agreements, including a deal with South Korea. All trade agreements require Congressional ratification and they take time, sometimes passing from one administration to another.

With respect to the Middle East, Romney did offer alternative policies, which include arming the opposition in Syria, halting Iran's nuclear capability rather than merely preventing it from building nuclear weapons, tougher conditions on support for Egypt, and more explicit support for Israel.

But when Paul Ryan, Romney's running mate, was pressed to identify specific campaign policy during the vice presidential debate, it turned out that there were fewer differences than Romney's speech might have suggested.

The tone and the politics of Romney's foreign policy vision coincide with the Obama administration's incoherence and poor coordination, as seen in US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice's hasty explanation of September 11's attack on the consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans including the ambassador. Rice blamed protesters angry at an anti-Islam movie. The attack was in fact the work of terrorists, the State Department later revealed.

Setting aside the specific areas of contrast and the tone of the Romney's speech, there are nonetheless differences in the vision and strategic approach to foreign policy between the two candidates.

Obama has a core belief in multilateralism - forming coalitions and partnerships - and judiciously applying military (hard) power in combination with diplomacy and development assistance (soft power) - what the administration likes to call "smart" power. Multilateralism recognises today's increasingly interdependent and multi-polar world.

This was reflected in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's Confirmation Hearing in January 2009. She said "America cannot solve the most pressing problems on our own, and the world cannot solve them without America."

Romney, on the other hand, would probably be more comfortable with unilateralism, leading from the front and perhaps being quicker to use hard power.

The contrast in foreign-policy approach is an interesting prelude to the upcoming second presidential debate, today (Bangkok time), which will focus on global affairs.

Kiertisak Toh is a member of the economic faculty at Radford University, Virginia.


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