The National Security Consensus

The next four years of U.S. foreign policy will look a lot like the past four years -- regardless of who's elected president.

Rick Wilking-Pool/Getty Images
Rick Wilking-Pool/Getty Images

America’s political polarization does not extend far into the international realm. For all the rhetoric on the campaign trail, a recent Chicago Council on Global Affairs poll found that Democrats and Republicans have largely similar views on most foreign-policy issues. Republicans are marginally more worried about external threats than Democrats, but a strong majority of Americans now agrees that the Iraq and Afghan wars were not worthwhile, and there is a consensus in favor of a more cautious and selective brand of American global leadership.

The Oct. 21 debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama confirmed this consensus. Romney moved toward the center on foreign policy even more definitively than he had in the earlier domestic debates, clearly distancing himself from the neoconservative wing of his party. Assuming Romney would govern from the stance upon which he is now running, one would expect a lot more continuity than change in American foreign policy, no matter who wins the election.

Certainly there could be differences in tone. Romney would presumably be a more unapologetic champion of American exceptionalism. But then Romney wouldn’t have much to apologize for, since Obama would have left him a pretty strong legacy in the international realm.

Relations with both China and Russia, already deteriorating, could get worse if President Romney were to carry through on his threat to declare the former a currency manipulator and to treat the latter as America’s No. 1 adversary. Obama has also been taking a tougher line on China of late, however. In contrast, Obama might well seek after the election to overcome differences with Russian President Vladimir Putin on missile defenses in Europe, an issue on which Romney would likely be less forthcoming.

Both Romney and Obama have threatened to use military force against Iran if it continues its pursuit of nuclear weapons, and both have discounted the prospect of intervening militarily to help defend the Syrian people from the Assad regime. Both positions are likely to be severely tested in the coming months, no matter who is president.

Without broad international support, an American attack on Iran would probably weaken, rather than intensify, the external and internal pressures upon that regime. Iran is likely to deny Washington any widely appealing justification for such an attack, making this an unattractive option.

On the other hand, both international and domestic pressures for more forceful American action in Syria are likely to build as refugee flows increase, atrocities multiply, extremist groups gain traction and the civil war spills over into neighboring states.

Romney might appear more hawkish on such issues, but George W. Bush’s legacies of Iraq and Afghanistan would burden any efforts he might make to rally American and foreign support for any military action. Obama, if he chose a military response in either instance, would have the comparatively low-cost successes of Libya and the hunt for Osama bin Laden to his credit in arguing the case. So while Romney might be more inclined to take military action, Obama would probably have an easier time securing domestic and international support for such a step.

Protecting jobs is by far the top foreign-policy priority of most Americans — 83 percent in the Chicago Council poll, vs. only 64 percent who thought combating terrorism an important goal.  Republicans are usually more enthusiastic about trade liberalization than Democrats, but Romney’s rhetoric on China suggests that protectionism might also be part of the mix in his administration.

For either presidency, much will depend on personalities and events. Obama’s team would likely survive largely intact. John Kerry or Susan Rice, both closely associated with current policies, are favored to replace Hillary Clinton at the State Department. Among those who might replace Leon Panetta at defense, should he chose to leave, are his current deputy, Ashton Carter, or his former under secretary for policy, Michèle Flournoy. David Petraeus seems likely to stay at CIA and Tom Donilon will either remain national security advisor or move to another senior post.

With Romney, the question is whether he would pull together a foreign-policy team of personally compatible centrists, as Bush did for his second term, or give fuller representation to the ideological divergences within the Republican foreign-policy establishment, as Bush did in his first term.

It was, of course, not just Bush’s initial appointments but the effect of 9/11 that stimulated the interventionist and unilateralist policies of his first term. Shocks of that magnitude could knock any administration off balance, particularly one still feeling its way.

Either president will need to focus initially on largely domestic issues, in particular the looming fiscal cliff and the oft-postponed decisions on tax and spending priorities. It would take Romney considerably longer than Obama to get a new team in place and to flesh out an operable set of domestic policies. New administrations are necessarily inexperienced as a team, even if individuals may have substantial qualifications, and are therefore more prone to unforced errors and missed opportunities. If Romney wins, therefore, American foreign policy would likely be largely event-driven for the next half year (not that any early innovations are necessarily expected from Obama either).

In early 2008, I predicted that a Democratic president would continue the national security policies of Bush’s second term. To the discomfort of many of his supporters, that is exactly what Obama chose to do. Today American public opinion is much less divided on international issues than it was four years ago. The two presidential candidates are much closer in their expressed views than were Obama and McCain. Continuity would thus seem an even better bet this time around.

James Dobbins is a senior fellow and distinguished chair in diplomacy and security at the RAND Corporation. He has held State Department and White House posts including assistant secretary of state for Europe, special assistant to the president for the Western Hemisphere, special adviser to the president, secretary of state for the Balkans, and ambassador to the European community. Dobbins has served on numerous crisis management and diplomatic troubleshooting assignments as special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Kosovo, Bosnia, Haiti, and Somalia for the administrations of Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. In 2013, he returned to the State Department to become the Obama administration's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, returning to RAND in 2014.

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