America decides – the foreign policy positions of the candidates for president

Rudolph Giuliani, Republican candidate for president
By Richard Laming

The American presidential election campaign that is now underway will have profound consequences for the whole world. Even though non-Americans can’t vote, they will still be affected. So, as a service to its members, Federal Union reports on the positions and arguments of the different candidates.

All of them have published articles and papers on foreign policy, often in the prestigious journal, “Foreign Affairs”, in an attempt to make their positions clear. As polling day gets closer, these positions might change somewhat in response to voter and media pressure, and bear in mind that the president is always dependent on Congress for the authority to implement much of his (or her) electoral programme, but these initial statements give us a good idea what the different candidates would really like to do if elected.


There are five main candidates from the Republican party, hoping to succeed President George W Bush:
– Rudolph Giuliani, former mayor of New York City
– Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas
– John McCain, senator for Arizona
– Ron Paul, congressman from Texas
– Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts

It is a striking tribute to the failure of the Bush presidency that all these five make a specific point of repudiating his foreign policies. Nobody wants to be associated with his record of incompetence and failure.

Four of the five – Romney, McCain, Guiliani and Huckabee – complain that the war in Iraq has not been prosecuted vigorously enough. They blame Donald Rumsfeld for supposing that the war could be fought and won by a small, fast moving army. Their solution now is to win the war by increasing and extending the deployment, with as many soldiers as it takes for as long as it takes. The prospect of defeat is one that none of the four can countenance. (Ron Paul takes a different view, which will be explained later.)

A principal reason for this determination to fight and win the war is the sense that it is part of a wider conflict with radical Islamism. All four believe that America is in a life and death struggle to preserve its way of life, and that there must be no concessions or sentiments of weakness. They are all comfortable with President Bush’s language of the “war on terror”, although Guiliani prefers to talk about “the terrorists’ war on us”. 9/11 is described as an act of war, and all the candidates argue that this is a war that America must win.

How should this be done? Here, we start to find some disagreements among the candidates. Mitt Romney seems to be the most determined to emphasise the ideological nature of the contest, asserting that “the jihadist threat is the defining challenge of our generation”, comparing it with the threats from the Nazis and the Communists in previous eras. It must simply be fought and defeated.

Rudi Guiliani shares this analysis but sees also a role for cultural and commercial influence in advancing America’s cause, as it did during the cold war. He wants to establish norms of behaviour: “Disorder in the world’s bad neighborhoods tends to spread. Tolerating bad behavior breeds more bad behavior. But concerted action to uphold international standards will help peoples, economies and states to thrive.” As mayor of New York City, he pioneered zero tolerance policing, an idea he has evidently not forgotten.

John McCain is more interesting still. Yes, he wants to fight and win the war in Iraq, but he is more ready than any of his rivals to recognise the importance and interests of America’s allies. Romney and Guiliani assume that the rest of the democratic world is ready to follow an American lead: McCain accepts that it might not. “When we believe international action – whether military, economic or diplomatic – is necessary, we must work to persuade our friends and allies that we are right. And we must also be willing to be persuaded by them. To be a good leader, American must be a good ally.” This sense that other parts of the world might have different interests to those of America, and legitimately so, is missing from the rest of the Republican field.

Mike Huckabee takes the opposite view. Whereas McCain says that “understanding foreign cultures is not a luxury but a necessity,” Huckabee wants to pull up the drawbridge. Like the others, he wants to increase defence spending, but unlike the others he wants to increase it by 50 per cent to levels last seen in the 1980s. He wants to build a fence and camera surveillance system along the Mexican border, and discourage dual citizenship: Americans should be punished if they cast votes in foreign elections. McCain speaks of creating a League of Democracies, “linking democratic nations in one common organisation”, to act when the UN fails and serve “as a unique handmaiden of freedom”. Huckabee declares that “my administration will never surrender any of our sovereignty”, and he even opposes the Law of the Sea Treaty.

All the candidates want see America move towards energy independence, and none of them are willing to reject military action in order to prevent Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. They criticise George Bush’s inability to negotiate with the Iranian regime, but none of them assumes that negotiations will necessarily be successful. John McCain goes further, in fact, and argues that the very notion of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is flawed, in that any country that develops nuclear power will inevitably seek to use it for military purposes, and that therefore the availability of civilian nuclear power should be denied to those countries that do not already have it. I can’t see such a proposal finding much support elsewhere in the world, but at least he is thinking creatively about how to deal with the failure of the NNPT. Its failure can’t simply be blamed on bad governments in the countries that have developed the bomb: it is inherent in the structure of the treaty itself.

A few words about Ron Paul: only a few words are needed. Unlike the other four, he opposes the war in Iraq and objects to the deployment of American military forces around the world. He even opposes membership of the United Nations on the grounds that the UN might try to restrict the Americans’ right to bear arms under the Second Amendment to the constitution. He is an isolationist of the very old-fashioned school, but comes fifth out of five in the polls, fortunately.


The race for the Democrat nomination centres on three candidates:
– Hillary Clinton, senator for New York and former First Lady
– John Edwards, former senator for North Carolina and John Kerry’s vice-presidential running mate in 2004
– Barack Obama, senator for Illinois

As with the Republican candidates, there is considerable agreement among the Democrats on many foreign policy issues (and actually quite a lot of agreement with much of the Republican position, too), but there are areas of disagreement too.

Starting with Iraq, there is a sharp difference between Republicans and Democrats. Whereas the Republicans want to step up the war in order to win it, the Democrats want to call a halt and withdraw. As John Edwards puts it, “Iraq’s problems are deep and dangerous, but they cannot be solved by the US military.” All three candidates agree that withdrawal needs to be accompanied by engagement with Iraq’s neighbours, including Iran, to establish a stable and secure future for that unhappy country. This is essentially the policy outlined by the Baker-Hamilton report in December 2006, which President Bush at the time (and since) has rejected.

If the three candidates agree on this policy, it is interesting that while Hillary Clinton uses the language of the “war on terror”, Barack Obama ignores it and John Edwards goes out of his way to denounce it. The policies as stated now might be rather similar, but the underlying instincts seem rather different.

Overall, there is less in the Democrats’ policy positions than there is in those of the Republicans. On issues such as energy security, Iran, and Russia, they are all in agreement: these are not questions that will be settled by the election in November or by the primaries before then.

Democrats vs Republicans

Where there is disagreement, though, and an issue genuinely to be settled, is the overall tone of America’s relationship with the rest of the world. The four main Republicans all think they are fighting a war and want to escalate it in order to win it. The Democrats, while they condescend to talking tough and they largely agree that the armed forces need to be strengthened, prefer to concentrate on building up civilian and non-military means of spreading American influence. They prefer aid for health care and education, rather than a renewed arms build-up. While the Republicans want to secure America’s place in the world through demonstrations of strength and military prowess, the Democrats want America to be loved.

The Republicans use the rhetoric of military and economic leadership: the Democrats talk of leading the world morally.

But that is not to say that the Democrat approach is necessarily preferable. Their underlying assumption is that America can assume moral leadership of the world whenever it chooses, that the rest of the world is sitting around waiting for the return of America. I am not sure that is true any more.

I think that the next American president will have to earn respect and not merely assume it. The spread of democracy and capitalism around the world has now gone so far that America is no longer hegemonic in the way it once was. The world has changed in many ways during the presidency of George W Bush. That is not to deny that America remains important, of course, as the world’s largest economy and the world’s largest military power, but its economy is balanced precariously on the twin deficits of tax and trade and its armed forces are mired in Iraq. American power is not what it was.

Against that background, the American voters are faced with a profound choice this autumn. Will they opt for the Republicans’ re-enactment of the Reagan-era military build-up, when America stood tall in the world to confront its enemies, or will they prefer the Democratic attempt to revive the Camelot era of John F Kennedy? Perhaps the world wants to be inspired rather than awed. It’s a big decision for the Americans to take. Meanwhile the rest of the world must watch and wait and tremble.

This article was written by Richard Laming, who may be contacted at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union.

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