Maybe because the United States has experienced no foreign policy crisis analogous to September 11th Barack Obama has been able to maintain a foreign policy largely in keeping with most of his 2008 campaign rhetoric. On Iran, he said that the United States should use a combination of aggressive sanctions and diplomacy. On Iraq, he called for a responsible, phased withdrawal. On Pakistan, he said that the United States should be willing to strike at Al Qaeda targets within Pakistan with or without the consent of the Pakistani government. While someone could debate the efficacy or wisdom of those policies, each of those three issues has played out almost exactly as Obama promised that they would as a candidate, most dramatically with Pakistan. Obviously not all campaign promises on foreign policy are kept. Bill Clinton won an advantage over George H.W. Bush in 1992 when Clinton called for a more aggressive policy, including military involvement, toward the war in Bosnia even though Clinton himself ended up being accused of dragging his feet on Bosnia once he came into office. George W. Bush’s foreign policy turn was already mentioned above. Obama suggested that he would sit down with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, would close the prison in Guantanamo Bay, and would renegotiate NAFTA, none of which happened.
Then there are those campaign promises that are designed to score domestic points and are usually related to the economy. Obama’s 2008 promise to renegotiate NAFTA and his current attacks on Romney’s outsourcing in the current campaign are designed to appeal to domestic audiences, specifically those in swing states that have been adversely affected by trade liberalization. That does not mean that Obama’s anti-globalization attacks on Romney are disingenuous—the reason that some have argued that Obama has been too slow to ratify pending free trade agreements—but it should not be taken too seriously either. Obama has never tried to regulate outsourcing or renegotiate NAFTA, and there were also legitimate reasons not to move on the pending FTAs that have nothing to do with Obama being a globalization skeptic.
So which of Harold Macmillan’s “events” were determinative in changing the actual foreign policy course from the one that was advertised? They fall into two categories: crises (“Events” with a capital “E”) and learning (lower-case “events”). Both are usually unforeseen; crises because their nature is to be unforeseen, and learning because candidates can stake out their foreign policy platform without understanding the constraints (bureaucratic, political, international, and so on) that they would have as a policymaker. For example, one of Obama’s early mistakes was by overestimating his ability to be a multilateralist simply because he was not George W. Bush—only to find out that Bush was often an excuse that countries sometimes would use to avoid doing something that they did not want to do anyway. Iran’s Green Movement complicated Obama’s attempts to pursue a greater opening with Iran, while Obama also underestimated the domestic pushback from closing Guantanamo Bay. As for Clinton and Bosnia, once Clinton got into office he encountered a military that was uneager to intervene abroad following Somalia and Haiti. These examples are not exhaustive, and it is worth pointing out that most administrations are able to adjust from early setbacks, but it is worth noting how the candidate’s view changes once they are sitting on the other side of the desk in the Oval Office. The fact Obama has been able to develop a foreign policy that most pundits consider to be his strongest asset demonstrates that it is possible to adapt effectively.
Does that mean that it is not worth paying attention to what presidential candidates say on foreign policy? Some, like The Economist, have pointed out that there is not substantially much difference between Obama and Romney. Romney’s rhetoric about American exceptionalism is designed less to stake out policy ground than it is to differentiate himself from Obama by using the accusation that Democrats are “soft” on foreign policy, but also to cover the fact that Romney has failed to offer almost any detail in his own foreign policy platform. Romney can get away with this because the vast majority of voters do not care about foreign policy, especially when the economy is the main concern. This is also what gives extra traction to anti-globalization positions described above, since these cut closer to the issues that voters are most interested in. The result is that presidential candidates only need to address foreign policy in generalities and if they get specific, such as on trade issues or how a candidate would handle protests in the Middle East, most of it will be bluster either because the candidate is inexperienced in foreign policy constraints or telling voters what they think they want to hear.
But this does not mean that Obama and Romney are completely indistinguishable—the difference is how each candidate would respond to “events.” The most effective way to understand that is to consider how an Obama or a Romney administration would respond to a crisis like September 11th. In the 2000 presidential campaign many people made glib remarks about how indistinguishable Al Gore was from George W. Bush or vice versa, but it is not easy to imagine Gore responding to September 11th the same way that Bush did. That does not mean that there would not have been an invasion of Iraq or Afghanistan if Gore was in office, but that their staffing decisions, fundamental worldviews, and threat perceptions made certain policy responses more likely.
The same will likely be true depending on whether Obama or Romney wins in November. Ultimately, the foreign policy that will be the most successful will not be the one articulated in the campaign but the one that can adapt to circumstances, manage constraints, and secure buy-in from the bureaucracies, all of which will make it easier for a given administration to respond to “events.” There are not many talking points on any campaign trail that will address a candidate’s skills in those areas.
Paul Nadeau is editor-in-chief of The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, the flagship academic journal of the Fletcher School at Tufts University. He graduated from the Fletcher School in May 2012 with a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy (MALD) degree focusing in U.S. foreign policy.
This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's September/October 2012 edition.