Super Tuesday: The Foreign Affairs Perspective

As Super Tuesday voting commences across the country today, we at the World Affairs Council want to take a look at international issues in the 2012 presidential campaign.

Foreign policy is widely seen to have taken a back seat to domestic economic and social questions this election season. Out of 20 official debates with the various Republican candidates, only the debates on November 12 and November 22 focused specifically on foreign policy and national security questions, though even those often pivoted back to domestic policy.

President Obama, for better or for worse in terms of polls, is primarily running on his record after three years in the White House, rather than putting out broad policy objectives for the future like his Republican challengers. That said, the incumbent has the National Security Council and the State Department to issue documents like the hefty National Security Strategy, which is a far more detailed foreign policy plan than any of the challengers have yet put forth.

As is too often the case, foreign policy positions issued by the candidates have, for the most part, been fairly broad and lacking in specifics. There are even those who think that there is little substantive difference between the stated foreign policy objectives of the President and the Republicans. But you would never know that from reading the Republicans’ campaign platforms; they uniformly phrase their arguments in opposition to the Obama administration’s real or perceived positions, particularly around the idea of American exceptionalism and a necessity for the United States to remain the sole global superpower.

All the major candidates have pointed towards our Constitution, rule of law, and freedom of speech as defining characteristics of an American values system. Romney, Santorum, and Gingrich each allege that the President does not believe in American exceptionalism, seemingly ignoring his endorsement of the concept. Obama’s nuanced position as articulated in the speech (linked above) includes an admission that other countries could see themselves as exceptional and have plenty to offer the United States, as well as the fact that the United States has not always been consistent in standing up for its values.  President Obama’s stated policies include addressing other countries on a basis of mutual respect and re-energizing alliances such as those with Turkey, India, and Indonesia. In his recent trip to Australia and Indonesia, President Obama outlined a significant realignment of US forces in the Western Pacific. He has emphasized a return to American leadership abroad, including more behind-the-scenes work than his challengers would like (Santorum’s foreign policy page is titled “No more leading from behind for America”).

Mitt Romney’s interpretation of American exceptionalism is inextricably intertwined with overwhelming American military and economic dominance. He calls for a return to Cold War-era levels of military expenditure and proclaims that “the best ally of world peace is a strong America.” In contrast to what he sees as weakness in the President’s approach, Romney talks about using our “significant leverage” to force Afghanistan and Pakistan to cooperate more rather than engaging in further negotiations. One of the most striking proposals of Romney’s foreign policy platform is the creation of the so-called Reagan Economic Zone. This international organization, preceded by a proposed “Campaign for Economic Opportunity in Latin America,” would be an international alliance created to “extol the virtues of democracy and free trade,” and which has been noted for its similarities to the Trans-Pacific Partnership which the President has been promoting for the last several months. Critics note that it remains to be seen how the Reagan Economic Zone’s intended partners will respond to the initiative, particularly regarding President Reagan’s debatable record of supporting democracy and human rights throughout Latin America, most notably in Nicaragua.

The Republican candidates have been consistent in their calls for an increase in American support for pro-democracy protesters and opposition leaders around the world, singling out the failed Green Revolution in Iran and the current uprising in Syria as examples where the Obama administration has failed to uphold American ideals.  At the same time, the candidates were reluctant to support the administration’s intervention in the Libyan civil war last year and have been less than optimistic about the fall of Hosni Mubarak (“an imperfect but longstanding ally” according to Santorum) and the ensuing dominance of religiously oriented parties in the new Egyptian parliament.

As the campaign continues over the next 9 months, the World Affairs Council will look at the major foreign policy issues of the campaign, including China and Iran.

By Matt Landers, Communications Intern.