international analysis and commentary

Why the US presidential race cannot ignore the world – and Europe

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Even by America’s famously insular standards, the Republican race for president has up to now been striking in the desire of the prospective nominees to pretend the rest of the world simply does not exist. The most appalling example of this has to be Herman Cain mocking a reporter who was trying to trap him over the fact that he did not know that Islam Karimov was the leader of Uzbekistan. Cain turned on his questioner, mocking the country’s name, and making it very clear that such trivia was beneath him.

Other than the most vague criticisms of President Obama—centering on his stylistic penchant for apologizing for America’s past misdeeds—and with the great exception of a passion for Israel, you would think from listening to the endless series of GOP debates that America found itself alone in the world.

Why has the silence been so deafening? Beyond the obvious and overwhelming point that America finds itself in its worst domestic position since the 1930s, is there another reason the current Republican field seems (with the honorable exception of former Ambassador to China John Huntsman, who stands no chance of winning the nomination) determined to tell the America people how little they know of the rest of the world?  

The political answer to this question is that this silence remains the safe default position for a Republican Party almost completely fractured into warring foreign policy schools of thought following the implosion of the neoconservative presidency of George W. Bush. The Tea Party and evangelical Christian wing of the GOP is a case in point. It is presently an incoherent two-headed monster over foreign policy, with one wing strikingly libertarian, fronted by presidential candidate Ron Paul, and his son, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. Tea Party darling Sarah Palin epitomizes the other, neocon wing.

Over every conceivable foreign policy issue—from the scope of defense cuts, through staying the course in Afghanistan, to the Iranian nuclear threat—the libertarians and neocons are simply not going to agree about anything. In fact, as a rising movement, it was wise of the Tea Party, in its Contract From America, to ensure that none of its 10 planks dealt with foreign policy at all; why point out endemic divisions that would stifle the movement in its infancy? With realists stirring as well, in terms of critiquing the ever-missionary neocons at a time of obvious austerity, the Republican presidential candidates have all found it best to keep their heads down and await further developments in the battle for the GOP’s post-W foreign policy soul. 

President Obama, too, seems to view foreign affairs as merely a series of unexploded bombs left over from the disastrous presidency of George W. Bush: at best, they can be defused and forgotten as swiftly as possible; at worst, they can blow up in his face. Getting out of Iraq (forget that the war left Iran the dominant power in the Gulf), making moves for the door in Afghanistan (do not be overly worried about what comes next), scraping by in Libya (however anti-Western any new rulers of the place may turn out to be): it has been a foreign policy about the tactics of winding down costly involvements around the world, rather than one intent on setting novel strategic goals for the multipolar era. In terms of not bearing large political costs, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya have worked for the Obama White House politically. And that is pretty much all that matters.

This is a risible way for the two major parties of what remains the most powerful country on earth to conduct themselves. Historically, after all, events have a way of forcing ostriches from the sand. What is likely to intrude upon this agreed conspiracy of silence in terms of the American presidential race?

First, here are a few events that will not affect the race to the White House. Whether the Arab Spring turns to winter in Syria really has little effect. None of the great powers in the region (Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iran) other than Egypt will undergo revolution, and without that happening the whole process will peter out strategically. This unsatisfactory outcome is already on the cards and is unlikely to change dramatically in the near future.

China, the most important long-term challenge for America, will be more “context” than anything else (shorthand for the rise of the rest and the relative decline of the US). Beijing itself, cautious, aware of its vast and challenging internal problems and itself going through a leadership transition, will certainly do nothing to rock the boat too hard.

But there are two further issues that could intrude on this foreign policy-free zone: one a long shot and one a dead certainty. Current murmurings have the Israeli cabinet actively considering an air strike against an Iran still unabashedly pursuing its clandestine nuclear program. Reports suggest that while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman all back the high-risk strategy, the heads of the armed and security forces and a bare majority of the cabinet do not. If this were to change, and a bombing were to occur, oil prices would surely spike, and a regional conflict would be almost a certainty.

While all American politicians would be under great pressure to support Israel, this ruination of America’s outreach to the Muslim world would leave the political class with real choices to make, and quickly. Should Israel be supported to the hilt (even if the country acted unilaterally) or should America hedge its bets? The answer to this explosive question in this game-changing crisis would affect the conduct of American foreign policy for a generation.

But without doubt, the medium-term outcome of the euro crisis (ironically an issue over which America has little influence) will play a major role in who becomes the new president, precisely because it will show up as a domestic economic issue. There is a reason that the US Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner looks like he is trying to stifle a scream as he attends endless futile eurozone finance meetings on the crisis; from his point of view, their endless bungling could all but seal the electoral deal for the detested Republicans.

No modern American president has won re-election with unemployment hovering at 9%, as it is now; the economic margin of error for the White House in the upcoming presidential race is nil. Given the genuine interconnectedness of the world – a fact America’s presidential candidates are trying so hard to forget – a Greek default or Italy’s demise would spell financial disaster for the world economy as a whole, and would likely drive a wobbly American economy back into the ditch. Game, set, and match, to the Republicans. On the other hand, a managed outcome would give the White House a chance to thread the electoral needle.

Europe – the continent that was written off by both parties as being far less important than it once was – may well be the single biggest external factor conditioning the 2012 presidential race. Once again, as has occurred now for over a century, America is being drawn directly into European affairs, whether it likes it or not.