international analysis and commentary

The US foreign policy debate seen from Germany


Those in Germany who were hoping to hear about future transatlantic relations in the final presidential debate, focused on foreign policy, were clearly disappointed. In fact, it was not because of something the candidates said, but because of what they did not say. Germany was not mentioned with a single word as the emphasis of the discussion was on the Middle East and Asia and on the role of the American military.

From a German perspective, the debate was a disappointing from different points of view. On the one hand, the mainstream political parties, including the Liberals and Christian Democrats in government as well as the Social Democrats in opposition, acknowledged with regret that the US focus is shifting away from the European continent. On the other hand, the left-wing Linke and parts of the Green Party, who both see themselves as pacifist movements, were disappointed by how President Obama presented himself as a hawkish Commander-in-chief. Despite ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they accuse him of failing to close Guantánamo and using drones to kill suspects abroad.

Today, it is not clear whether this is only a transition from the belligerent Bush years towards a more peaceful approach or whether this is a continuation of those same policies. It shows that America is seeking its new role on the global stage. During the presidential debate, the two candidates talked about American exceptionalism and the United States as a model for the world. Throughout the campaign, as well as during the debate, former Governor Romney often called for “American leadership” whereas President Obama sees America’s role as leading the way through building alliances. However, this rhetoric might only be backed by very limited engagement abroad over the next four years. Both candidates stated that it is at least as important to ensure nation building at home as it is to export it to other parts of the world. This proves how the United States is turning inwards and how the next President will pool the country’s resources to be used at home rather than abroad. The major challenge will be to tackle national issues like the economy and particularly the job market.

Other than previous electoral campaigns, this one is not fought on foreign policy, unlike for instance in 2004. The reason is not only that the domestic situation is a top priority, but also that there are hardly any diverging positions on international affairs between the two candidates. In Syria for instance, Romney and Obama want to see President Assad gone as soon as possible and believe in supporting the rebels by providing them military support and advice. However, they prefer to let the issue to be dealt with by the Syrian people. The wording might differ in certain details, but both rule out a military involvement of American troops, a position that is backed by the German government, who is providing humanitarian assistance to the displaced in the country and in Turkey.

Likewise, the Republican and the Democrat, though “not taking any option off the table”, are very cautious on Iran. Although Romney’s rhetoric might be a bit harsher by considering a nuclear Iran as the major security threat, he agrees that economic sanctions and political pressure are the way to move forward in order to prevent the Islamic Republic from being able to produce a nuclear bomb. Both candidates are keen on implementing tougher sanctions to achieve a political solution. For them, the only possible outcome is for Iran to stop its nuclear programme. Their refusal to threaten military strike is in line with the German and European position of tightening sanctions and isolating the country. The five veto powers of the UN Security Council together with Germany in the framework of the “E3+3 negotiations” have a strong interest in furthering the talks and coming to a deal.

Although cautious on Iran, both candidates stressed their unconditional support of Israel, politically, culturally and militarily. Both emphasised the strong ties with the strongest American ally in the region, pointing out that they would stand side by side whenever the Jewish state is attacked. This commitment is shared by Europe and especially by Germany. Yet, considering the last presidential debate, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process will not be a top priority for the upcoming four years, which is another example of how US interests and its foreign policy agenda are changing.

Finally, another point of convergence is the fight against terrorism. The Republican challenger congratulated the President’s achievement of capturing former al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Although Governor Romney might have had changing views throughout the campaign on ending the American military involvement in Afghanistan by 2014, he has now come to terms with the President’s plan. Together with the NATO partners including Germany, the US will withdraw its troops over the next two years to hand over security to the Afghan forces. In Germany, this strategy is supported both by the government and the opposition.

Thus, with major challenges at home, the highest priorities on the American foreign policy agenda remain in the Middle East for both presidential candidates.

The final presidential debate was followed closely not only in the United States but also abroad, yet with a different focus. Whereas Germans were keen to see an outline of the perspectives for US foreign policy over the next four years, Americans were more interested in how the incumbent and his challenger presented themselves as statesmen and commanders-in-chief.

As the debate turned out to be a disappointment from a German perspective, it would be interesting to know what the missing transatlantic rhetoric will imply. The only time Europe was mentioned was, when President Obama stated that “Our alliances have never been stronger: in Asia, in Europe, in Africa, with Israel.” This could suggest that strong transatlantic relations are seen as a given. Yet, by not mentioning the strongest partner on the European continent, the candidates prove that their priorities remain elsewhere.

However, the United States and Germany do pursue the same interests in most of their foreign policy areas, particularly in the Middle East. Both Germany and the United States want to see a swift end of the Syrian civil war, preferably with a replacement of Assad’s regime.

According to the German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle in a recent interview, the sanctions imposed on Iran are proving to be effective. The resulting economic blows suffered by the Islamic Republic show that “the policies of international isolation are harming the country and putting the regime under pressure.”

Regarding the military involvement in Afghanistan, the German Bundestag has also come to some sort of consensus that their troops should be withdrawn. Whereas the left-wing Linke has always been against sending German soldiers there, they now see themselves comforted as the mainstream parties agree to bring the national troops home.

Just as German parties in general, particularly the Green Party is concerned because of something the two presidential candidates did not mention in their debate: climate change – arguably the greatest environmental challenge facing the planet, did not find its way into any of the debates. This was the first time in the series of pre-election clashes since 1988 that this happened.

If the German Greens want to shape foreign policy again after the general elections next year, they are certainly hoping for a cooperative partner in the White House. Nevertheless, this is not only a Green Party issue, but it is acknowledged and stressed by all political parties in Germany. As part of the EU, it hopes to be a driving force in combating climate change. Tackling this issue globally might be one of the few potential areas where tensions with the US could arise.

Parallel to the United States, the EU seems to be turning inwards, tackling its own challenges, in particular the debt crises in different countries. With this perspective, in Germany, as seen now across the Atlantic, the next general election will not be fought on foreign policy issues; unlike for instance in 2002, when Social Democrats and Christian Democrats clashed on the invasion of Iraq.

Both Chancellor Merkel and her challenger Peer SteinbrĂĽck are passionate pro-Europeans and it is very likely that they will focus their efforts on Europe rather than on strong involvements outside the continent. At the same time they are both great atlanticists, which means they will remain strong partners of the United States. Whatever the outcomes of the US presidential election and the general elections in Germany in 2013 will be, no major changes should be expected. Whereas Germany will be trying to reshape Europe by strengthening the eurozone, it remains to be seen whether the United States will actually show global leadership in the tradition of the second half of the 20th century or focus on regional alliances and share responsibilities with its international partners.