American voters head to the polls on Tuesday. Most political analysts, irrespective of party preferences, are forecasting an electoral wipe-out for the ruling Democratic Party in the U.S. Congress and Senate. The rise of the Tea Party has been the major theme of pre-election debate among the U.S. punditocracy. (For an in-depth report on this political phenomenon, see our ‘It’s [tea] Party Time!’ report). Irrespective of the outcome, this electoral contest will not only affect the way politics is played on Capitol Hill. It will affect future American decisions on the world stage. And what happens within the world’s leading power will touch you, no matter where you live. Even if you cannot vote on Tuesday, this election will come to affect your place in this world.
The confrontational rhetoric from the anti-Obama camp has been gathering steam since Day One of the incumbent presidency. But any international observer could be forgiven for assuming that the U.S. was currently on the verge of a Second Civil War. In case you hadn’t heard, Obama is both a fascist and a socialist—at the same time. Indeed, Obama is supposedly as Red as Mao and Kim Jong-il, even as he is accused of building Nazi death camps for elderly U.S. citizens. That would make Barack Obama the human embodiment of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Personal liberty, small government and low taxes are presumably Poland. And Stalin/Hitler (Shitler?) is on the march, spreading the wealth around, and undermining basic American values. At least that is how Fox News and Glen Beck see it. How the American people view their own government will become clearer when the poll results come in.
The political rhetoric of these mid-term elections has been so shrill, and filled with fear-mongering, visceral hatred and false historical analogies that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, the comical saviours of America, intervened by organising a Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in the middle of the National Mall. The 50,000 attendees vented their civility with such signs as “I respectfully disagree with your opinions, but I still value you as a person” and “I understand your stance, and while I disagree, I’m pretty sure you’re not a Nazi.” A little girl in fairy dress was even seen sporting an “I’m taking the Tea Party back” sign. A concerned mother, however, pleaded to her fellow Americans: “Don’t let Glen Beck Tea Bag our children!” Tea bags aside, it is clear that the current political mood in the United States—as officialised by the November 2 election—will come to influence President Obama’s foreign policy options. Whether you live in Wogga Wogga, Wuhan, or Teheran, here is why you should care.
The nexus between the mid-term elections and President Obama’s foreign policy constraints and choices has been consistently argued by George Friedman here, here and here. Basically, Friedman demonstrates that a Democratic reversal on the domestic front, which appears highly likely, will impair the incumbent administration’s ability to force through its ambitious domestic reform agenda, as Republicans could easily vote down any legislature in Congress. Hence, to stand a chance at re-election in 2012, the White House will be forced to look at achieving measurable goals by which to be judged favourably in the next presidential elections. The American presidency, as Friedman points out, has historically been strong on matters of state and foreign affairs, but weak on the home front. This system of checks and balances is a political constraint, but also an opportunity.
As Obama’s choices are narrowed in domestic politics, he will look for a bold move to make on the world stage to assert his authority and to symbolise enduring American power, despite Tea Party antics and the potential for a double-dip recession. A foreign policy manoeuvre which demonstrated that the End is Not Nigh for the U.S. as a superpower would presumably win Obama a lot of swing votes, and perhaps even Republican-leaning votes in 2012. Such a move, if successful, would reassure the American polity that the U.S. was indeed only going through “hard times, not end times”. But it would have to be bold; and it would have to be quick. For one, things are going too swimmingly in U.S.-Russia relations for Obama to force his hand with Moscow, as Friedman argues. Afghanistan is still in the balance, but there is not much he can do apart from throw more troops and money at the war. This leaves Iran.
Friedman hypothesises that Obama will be forced to confront the Iranian question by either 1) negotiating a settlement with Iran, 2) bombing Iran’s military and nuclear capabilities, or 3) continuing business as usual. In brief, the first is deemed unlikely (due to the very real risk of Obama being portrayed by Republicans as weak on national security and an appeaser); the second carries higher risks; and the third implies the possibility that Iran could fully realise its aspiration of becoming a nuclear power to be reckoned with by the 2012 election season. The choices are stark, and the scenario convincing. But Friedman may not have been correct on the target. Although the Iranian nuclear crisis is simmering, the Obama administration is already working hard to secure a nuclear deal. Obama is averse to compromising with Teheran, after having been repeatedly rebuffed in his attempts to extend an open hand to the Iranian ruling élite. But he is equally unlikely to authorise the use of force in launching an air war against Iranian military forces, except if the Iranians give him a good reason to. Without a provocation or act of war from Teheran first, either aimed against the U.S., Israel or Saudi Arabia, Washington will continue business as usual. An arguably more pressing diplomatic issue in the post-November election will not be Iran, but China.
whatever happens as a result of China’s rise,
the U.S. will remain an offshore Asian power.
As Barack Obama noted in a pre-election video message, the U.S. economy ought to be a bipartisan concern, rather than a zero-sum political arena. The danger of looking inward and spending the next two years “arguing with one another,” Obama said, is that America’s strategic and economic competitors “like China” will try to over-take a U.S. mired in its domestic troubles. As we have argued elsewhere on Foreword, in 2010 the U.S. has undergone a change from focussing outwards to inwards on its economic woes, at the same time as the People’s Republic of China is beginning to translate its growing economic power into external political influence. In fact the U.S.-China strategic competition has only accelerated in the wake of the 2008/2009 Global Financial Crisis, partly due to the slowly closing gap in economic power between the two nations. But Beijing’s assertive foreign policy moves this year, in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, the Yellow Sea, Kashmir, Southeast Asia, and even the South Pacific have set off alarm bells across regional governments from ASEAN countries, to India, South Korea, and Australia. In reaction to China’s political and military rise, regional allies of the United States are now thankful that the U.S. role in Asia is balancing the growing Chinese superpower.
This is why President Obama will be boarding a plane to Asia for a round of reassurance diplomacy shortly after the mid-term elections. After having postponed this trip several times earlier this year, due to domestic political issues—which may indirectly have contributed to Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s downfall—not even a terrorist threat from Yemen is stopping Obama this time. Although Obama’s agenda is only taking him to India, Indonesia, South Korea and Japan, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is being sent to signal U.S. reengagement in the South Pacific and cooperation with Australia. This two-pronged diplomatic offensive serves one basic purpose: showing the states of the Asia-Pacific that, whatever happens as a result of China’s rise, the U.S. will remain an offshore Asian power.
Hence, the first presidential touch-down in India may reassure New Delhi of Washington’s continued bipartisan commitment to their relationship. In India, Obama will be discussing issues relating to Afghanistan, Pakistan, business relations, and perhaps India’s campaign for a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council—which Obama will support if Indians get lucky. But China will also be on the table, at least during private talks. At a U.S.-India strategic dialogue earlier this year, Obama said, without mentioning Beijing, that “our relations with India are at the highest of priorities for my administration, and for me personally as President of the United States.” Obama valued America’s partnership with India not in geostrategic terms of where it is on the map—although his generals may beg to differ—but because of shared democratic values. In fact, India’s place on the map does matter. This logic will be confirmed if, as expected, Obama and India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sign military equipment deals endowing India with even greater defence capabilities.
Obama may attempt a bold foreign
policy overture in Asia,
most precisely aimed at China.
Obama’s next destinations will aim to reassure other key allies of the U.S. intention of remaining actively engaged in regional security issues. This tour de force will culminate with the G20 summit in Seoul, where Obama will attend a sideline bilateral meeting with his Chinese counterpart, President Hu Jintao. Obama is also scheduled to meet with President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia—whose collaboration with Europeans outside of a NATO framework has worried Washington—as well as Australian PM Julia Gillard. But the Obama-Jintao meeting will be the most important of this international conference. This is not exactly an equivalent to Nixon’s China moment, which Obama attempted in 2009 without much success. White House aides have been forced to clarify that the current trip is not a backhand slap, or an attempt at balancing against a rising China. A master strategist and statesman once suggested that one should never believe anything until it is officially denied. Of course, Obama’s Asia trip is not aimed at encircling or stunting the growth of China’s power. But it is clearly intended to reassure regional allies that China’s growth will not supplant America’s military and political role in Asia.
In the next few months, Obama may attempt a bold foreign policy overture in Asia, most precisely aimed at China. This is unlikely to take the form of military or other external pressure, as Friedman has speculated for Iran. Instead, judging by the diplomatic style of the Obama administration, Washington may attempt to reach an ambitious quid pro quo with Beijing, perhaps regarding a draft peace settlement over the South China Seas—which the U.S. has proposed to help ASEAN in mediating—which Washington may abandon in favour of a settlement on the Korean peninsula, arms sales to Taiwan, or even Iran, over which Beijing exercises significant influence. Such an agreement would certainly carry significant risks, such as the U.S. tacitly conceding a Chinese sphere of influence in exchange for support elsewhere. But doing nothing overseas, and waiting for an electoral verdict in 2012, is also a major risk for the incumbent Democrats, which could ultimately cost them the presidency.
To return to this week’s elections, an important question has been asked by several insightful pundits: Do the Tea Parties have an alternative foreign policy? In one word: no. Some Tea Party talking heads, such as Ron Paul, support a radical form of pacifism and isolationism, with the U.S. abandoning all overseas military bases, and conceding the responsibilities of being the world’s foremost military and (for the moment) economic power. Some Tea Partiers, if elected, would go one step further, by campaigning for a unilateral withdrawal of the U.S. from the United Nations, which allegedly undermines the American right to carry guns, and pursues “socialistic programs that promote bicycle rental programs in the heartland in an effort to curtail American freedoms.” (Seriously, that’s one Tea Party accusation). Yet others are more radical than the most radical Tea Partiers, demanding a serious confrontation with Communist China.
Whatever happens on Tuesday, Obama’s choices will be significantly limited less by the Tea Parties themselves, than by his diminishing popular mandate which they symbolise. Obama will not launch a third Middle-Eastern war on Iran, unless he is given a good reason to. He is now looking to Asia and, particularly, China for a foreign policy card to play. If Hu Jintao is willing to play along, then the party has only just begun. If he doesn’t, the Democratic Party may wrap up early.