The U.S. Presidential Election and Foreign Policy (Agenda)
Editor’s Note: Transcripts are generated using speech-recognition technology. Therefore, Stratfor cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.
Reva Bhalla: Hello and welcome to this week's Agenda. This week I have with me Rodger Baker and we're here to discuss the foreign policy debate in the U.S. presidential election. So Rodger, the conventions have wrapped up, we're in that final stretch of the presidential campaign and the debates are up next. Now foreign policy may not be the defining issue of this election, but it's going to crop up in the election rhetoric. So what do you think? How much authority do you think the president actually has when it comes to shaping foreign policy?
Rodger Baker: I think when we look at the president, the president certainly has more authority, in many ways, of shaping foreign policy than he does of shaping domestic policy. Nonetheless he still has a lot of constraints. Whatever he may want to do, whatever he may wish to do, is still going to be held at the mercy of what's going on in the world — what the real aspects are that we see happening.
Reva: Definitely and there is a bit of nuance to this as well, right? Because we've seen during the Obama administration this tendency to engage more, to kind of allow the regional forces to organically create that balance of power of sorts. We saw this for example with Iran. Instead of actively intervening we saw Syria come into play. Emerging powers like Turkey take a more active stance in countering Iran. In Russia, we've seen it a bit of a softer stance as well — not driving so hard on ballistic missile defense. Whereas Romney, at least in his election rhetoric, has taken a slightly different stance, calling for more active involvement. For example, on Russia, he was saying that he's going to be more inflexible, and that he — that Russia should expect more of a backbone from the U.S. in dealing with it and looking out for partners like Poland.
Rodger: I think though in part you have to look at that as rhetoric. There may be, again, there may be a desire by Romney to be more assertive in foreign policy. There may be a need to speak to his constituency, that he'll be more assertive in foreign policy or more independent-minded for the United States, or stronger focused on what the U.S. interests are versus the concept of global interest. But again once he becomes president — if he becomes president — he still has the same constraints on him than any other president does. He may be able to shift some of the focus as to which countries gain more attention. Or where the U.S. decides to put more of its effort. But even that is not always something entirely within his control.
Reva: But certainly Putin is going to be paying a lot of attention to this election. I mean, the past decade was pretty nice for Russia, in terms of the distractions that the U.S. was experiencing in the Islamic world and what Russia was able to accomplish in reasserting its influence in the former Soviet periphery. But, now we've seen Russia get a few curve balls thrown its way. The EU financial crisis is creating a lot of problems, where Russia doesn't necessarily have the investment it was expecting for these modernization and privatization programs to maintain competitiveness of the Russian economy. And then we've got the energy equation shifting as well.
Rodger: Yeah, I think for the Russians, their problems are going to be starting to compound. On energy for example, as the United States increases shale gas production, the Russians are looking at that and seeing a potential competitor shaping up in the European markets. But also if you look at Russia, if you look at China, these are countries that have had somewhat more breathing room, somewhat more freedom of operation because the U.S. has been heavily tied down in the Middle East, in South Asia. And that wasn't necessarily a presidential choice. If you think of George Bush when he came into office, his focus was on the Pacific. His focus was on China and reshaping the balance of power between the United States and China. The beginning of his term was actually shaped by the collision between the Chinese aircraft and the U.S. aircraft. But then it was quickly distracted by the events of 9/11 and then by the follow-on U.S. actions. And in many ways that's even shaped the beginning of the Obama administration, even though his view was to focus much more on the Pacific, he remained largely constrained by focusing on South Asia and the Middle East.
Reva: So then, continuing on that point then, how is China looking at this election? What is it expecting? Does it see the U.S. as too distracted or is it dealing with enough distractions itself?
Rodger: The Chinese leadership going through its own transition at this time and that compounds their uncertainty with the United States. They've got a generational change in leadership. They have the realization that their economic system is no longer going to bide them over. Their markets in Europe have to have softened, their markets around the world have weakened, and the Chinese export-driven policy is not nearly as functional. They're trying to undergo an economic shift to move investment, to move economic activity into the interior, to focus more on domestic consumption. And to do that though they need a lot of money. And all of that is also about balancing their population and balancing social stability. And so as they watched the United States they've seen this pivot to Asia as what they see as an attempt to strangle China or to surround, to constrain China, constrain China's options for economic activity, which then limits their capabilities at home. And they're very nervous about that. They are looking to see if the president, whoever is elected, increases or decreases that focus on the Asian relationships.
Reva: And we are hearing a lot of talk about China and the South China Sea from the two candidates as well. And so China is trying to, basically, create a new reality in this region, trying to reshape the politics to tell countries like Vietnam, the Philippines, that there are actually risks attached to aligning yourself closely with the United States.
Rodger: Certainly, China's an emerging power. It's the big power in the region now. It's naturally going to be expanding its own activities there. It doesn't want the U.S. to come rushing into the region. In some ways, think of China and its view of the South China Sea and the East China Sea similar to the way that an emerging United States looked at the Caribbean, and maybe ultimately looked in part at the Atlantic or at least at the North Atlantic — that these are areas that were very critical for their economic growth. They were areas that were critical for what they consider to be their national security. And the Chinese view this area as theirs, and they want to keep the United States out, and the United States has close relationships with many of the countries in there. The U.S. plays up the idea of freedom of navigation, and that's not going to change whether it's Obama or whether it's Romney. The Chinese argue that freedom of navigation is not blocked, and the United States shouldn't be worried about that, that the China can ensure freedom of navigation.
Reva: And so that reality that Iran is going to be the same for either candidate as president.
Rodger: Yeah and I think if we look broader at the United States, in many ways, if you look over the long term for the U.S., there's really a common policy. The U.S. operates on a balance of power type of foreign policy around the world. And that is that the U.S. would rather see the local powers keep themselves in check. Does not necessarily want to intervene, or does not want to intervene quickly, if it doesn't feel that it has to do so, in many cases. And so in that long term, I think that that's the general pattern that we see whether it's a Republican, whether it's a Democrat, for decades and decades. The shorter the timeframe that we go in, the more that the individual president I think has some room to prioritize issues, so long as there's not a crisis, which will instantly draw the government into focusing just on that. But even as we've noted, within those prioritizations, in the end there's going to be only a limited number of options that they have, that they're able to focus and in particular that they're going to be able to realize.
Reva: Well thank you very much for that perspective Rodger, and thank you for joining us for this week's Agenda.