15 September 2012
Like the Republicans’ foreign policy platform, the Democrats’ platform is focused on the accomplishments of the past administration, but for very different reasons: while the Republicans needed to treat the President’s accomplishments as an indictment against him, the Democrats have used the same to establish a list of achievements that can make a case for maintaining the course. This is an example of how the party of the incumbent has an advantage since the platform can rest on tangible measures and help create a bias towards the status quo. For example, rather than demanding stronger food security programs, the platform points to how the administration helped mobilize $22 billion for a global food security effort. Instead of only expressing its support for Israel, the platform explains that the administration has increased security assistance to Israel every year since taking office. Whether the accomplishments were effective or not is another issue, but the ability to have a four year record to stand on makes the argument much easier.
Traditionally, Democratic foreign policy is generalized to include concern with human rights, skepticism of the military and the use of armed force, preference for diplomatic solutions and international engagement, and a humble view of national standing that looks more toward what the country could become but has not yet evolved towards, making their tone and worldview seem more apologetic than assertive. Their traditional (but also stereotyped) distrust of military force in favor of diplomacy has also opened them up to attacks that Democrats are weak on national security issues and (according to the stereotype) therefore would prefer talk their way out of problems rather than assertively confront them. Consequently, when Romney criticizes President Obama’s foreign policy, he exploits the traditionally weak points of Democratic foreign policy, calling it apologetic and undermining military strength.
In this election, national security and foreign policy are considered to be one of President Obama’s strengths, and he consistently polls better than Romney in this area. The death of Osama bin Laden is the most obvious reason why, but the fact that President Obama has been able to withdraw forces from Iraq without a calamity and has successfully pursued al Qaeda has also given him an advantage. This is an important reason why Romney has not focused on national security issues while President Obama has tried to press his advantage. The idea that a Democratic candidate could out-poll and out-campaign a Republican on national security, especially with a speech to the troops at Fort Bliss, shows how much Obama has broken the Republican monopoly. The platform tangibly demonstrates how Democratic thinking on national security has evolved: it lists the “three key pillars” of global leadership as “a prosperous and inclusive economy...unsurpassed military strength, and enduring commitment to advancing universal values.”
The platform also reveals linkages between issues that could contribute to a grand strategy: divesting from Iraq and Afghanistan can help enable to pivot towards Asia; elevating nuclear nonproliferation to undermine Iran’s case in nuclear negotiations; and calling for a new model for economic growth where currencies are market-driven makes the same point as Romney about Chinese currency manipulation but far more sensibly. Throughout the document are acknowledgments that rising economic powers need to be accommodated rather than confronted and an inference that the best role United States can be to manage the geopolitical shifts instead of maintaining an absolute advantage. In this sense, the platform is actually an impressive draft of a national security strategy.
At the same time, it is only a draft. It calls for North Korea to face increasing isolation if it continues to nuclearize but does not suggest how. The section on Russia says nothing about human rights. The document argues that the Afghan government now has “the time and space to build the capacity of their security forces” even though the Afghan government had to fire hundreds of soldiers to prevent more “insider attacks” from occurring. Most interestingly, the section on the military does not mention sequestration, and seems to infer that there will be further cuts defense spending beyond what was imposed in the Budget Control Act of 2011. This may be good politics: while the Defense Department and defense industry are alarmed by the possibility of sequestration, their fears might be exaggerated, and the debate is mostly a partisan issue. It may also be that the party platform does not want to undermine Senator Patty Murray’s threat to go over the fiscal cliff if there is no deal on taxes. Whatever the reason, defense advocates are probably uneasy about the platform’s failure to promise a solution to sequestration, which currently might (but probably will not) undercut President Obama’s case on national security.
This is a very different foreign policy platform than what Democrats have offered in the past forty years. For all of the Democratic base’s unease that President Obama’s secretiveness and assertiveness in pursuing al Qaeda has undermined the rule of law, the fact that the Democrats can stress their national security record at the convention shows that the President is unlikely to change course for the sake of his base. While the neoconservatives and realists continue to battle over primacy in the GOP, President Obama seems to have succeeded in changing the Democrats’ foreign policy stereotype with hardly a fight.
Photo courtesy of the Barack Obama Campaign.