Despite the successful negotiation of an agreement on oversight of Iran’s nuclear programme, the level of dissatisfaction in the United States with President Barack Obama’s foreign policy continues to grow. Discontent has fuelled speculation over what changes the next president might make. Observers will watch closely what the candidates profess on the campaign trail over the coming months, the election results themselves and the new chief executive’s cabinet appointments. But most telling will be early decisions on the most high-profile global challenges holding Washington’s attention. Among these, Russia, Iran and China loom large.
By any measure, Americans’ displeasure with their country’s foreign policy is rising. On average, recent polls show disapproval of President Obama’s handling of foreign affairs at more than 50 per cent. This is significant. It has been less than two months since the administration shepherded through Congress one of its signature foreign policy achievements, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), an international agreement on the oversight of Iran’s nuclear programme. Yet sealing the agreement did not appear to increase confidence in the president’s leadership. Significantly, Mr Obama’s poll ratings on foreign policy are lower than his overall job approval or assessments of his handling of the economy.
Even among the president’s strongest supporters, there is discomfort with his foreign policies, including strong opposition within the Democratic Party to the recently negotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and the decision to sustain troop levels in Afghanistan. After the announcement of the Afghanistan decision, former New Left theorist Tom Hayden of the Peace and Justice Research Centre wrote: ‘it’s time to strip the Obama sticker off my car.’
Many will look to the next president’s first months in office in early 2017 to get a read on the foreign policy vector of the next administration. It is almost a tradition in the US to treat the first 100 days in office as the benchmark for any new administration. This period coincides with the advent of a new legislative year in Congress, the delivery of the State of the Union Address and the unveiling of the president’s annual budget proposal.
Most administrations start out by highlighting their domestic agenda. President Obama, for example, emphasised economic initiatives in response to the 2007 recession. He also signalled early on his intent to follow through on the campaign promise to introduce national health care legislation. Foreign policy ‘signals’ such as the president’s first overseas trip are usually put off until later in the inaugural year.
That said, 2017 could be a marked departure. The degree to which Mr Obama’s supporters and opponents are disenchanted with the present policy course suggests that the first foreign initiatives could be more than symbolic.
There are many variables in play, however. How foreign policy events unfold over the next few months could well determine how emboldened or pressured the next administration might feel to act. Conditions in the Middle East, North Africa and Ukraine are particularly volatile, and unexpected developments there could be true ‘wild cards’ that could trump the intentions of a new president.
One example of such an event is last week’s coordinated terrorist attack in Paris. This strike is certain to prompt a robust military response from the French government. Any significant operation, whether to secure Europe’s borders or hit directly at targets in the Middle East, will require support from Nato and particularly the US. That would set in motion a chain of events with the potential to transform US policy towards the Middle East and perceptions of Mr Obama, which in turn may change how the candidates to succeed him in office are viewed.
Also significant will be the make-up of the new national security team and how quickly it is up and running. US law allows for establishing presidential ‘transition’ teams immediately after the parties’ summer nominating conventions. The teams are meant to facilitate a seamless transition of administrations between the election in November and the inauguration of a new president in January. However, it is up to the candidates themselves to decide on their structure and focus.
Both major parties can draw on many experienced national security and foreign policy professionals with extensive operational experience. While there is no shortage of talent, it is far too soon to speculate on the composition of those teams. Usually, the line-up is not publicly revealed until weeks after the election is over. All political appointments at the cabinet level and many at the sub-cabinet level require Senate confirmation, imposing further delay.
Even when the team is in place, it takes weeks to shake down and decide how to coordinate new initiatives. Innovation in foreign affairs often requires consultation with Congress as well as with friendly and allied nations, making it difficult to get off to a fast start.
Of course, it matters which party wins the election. A Democratic president will face the ticklish challenge of distancing himself or herself from Mr Obama’s policies without disassociating from them too blatantly.
Hillary Clinton remains the clear front-runner and the likely party nominee. She brings years of experience as a senator and secretary of state. While Mrs Clinton has been known to have her differences with the president, especially on the need for US assertiveness in the Middle East, her four year tenure as Mr Obama’s first secretary of state makes it difficult to disentangle herself from his legacy.
Mrs Clinton’s national security team would almost certainly contain familiar faces from the Obama years, including Michèle Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defence for policy, and Kurt Campbell, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. Since many members of Mrs Clinton’s team helped formulate key policies of the current administration, shifts under a Clinton presidency may be more about tone than substance.
The Republicans will obviously want to emphasise change over continuity. Very little else is predictable about security and foreign policy if the GOP nominee becomes the next occupant of the White House.
The two leading candidates, Donald Trump and Ben Carson, have no experience in foreign affairs and lack deep connections with the policy community. One of the few insiders known to be involved is retired Major General Robert Dees, the former vice director for operational plans and interoperability at the Department of Defence, who is a key advisor on the Carson campaign.
Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, who trail the two front-runners but remain top tier candidates, have well-known national security advisors who appear destined for important roles in setting up any transition team. Mr Rubio’s security adviser is Jamie Fly, a former National Security Council and Defence Department staffer under President George W. Bush. The same role for Mr Cruz is filled by Victoria Coates, a neo-conservative and published art historian who served as a research director for former Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Other potential members of a future Republican foreign policy team include former US Senator Jim Talent, former Undersecretary of Defence for Policy Eric Edelman, former National Security Advisor Steve Hadley and former Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick.
There are a few scenarios that can be anticipated and prepared for – regardless of which party takes power.
Russia: Few policy elites in Washington believe that US-Russian relations are on a sustainable course. There is a minority view that regards accommodating Russian security interests in Central Europe as the solution to balancing the relationship between Washington and Moscow. This is an unlikely course for the next president.
Odds are that a Democratic president will be more sensitive to European views and more reluctant to make an overt break with the Obama administration’s efforts to engage the Kremlin. A Republican president’s response might be more muscular and less restrained, including tougher sanctions, a reinforced military presence in Western Europe and perhaps the permanent stationing of US ground troops in Central Europe.
Whichever party wins, expect efforts to liberalise US shale gas exports in order to lessen Europe’s energy dependence on Russia to continue to pick up support in Washington.
Iran: A president from either party will want to put his or her stamp on Middle East policy – especially towards transnational terrorist groups such as Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Nevertheless, it could take months to formulate and implement a revised political and military strategy to tackle these dispersed threats. What can be expected early on is a signal on how the next White House proposes to deal with Tehran.
The key development to watch will be how the new president addresses the JCPOA. If the decision is made to abandon this agreement, the administration may move quickly to discourage trade and international investments with Iran. A rapid withdrawal from JCPOA is far more likely if a Republican wins the election, although the candidates thus far have expressed varying opinions on how they would address the nuclear deal and relations with Iran.
China: Irrespective of which party takes the presidency, US-China relations are the least likely, at least initially, to see a dramatic departure from their current course. The recent US effort to assert freedom of passage in the South China Sea will continue no matter which party wins.
The most reliable gauge of a potential policy shift will be the US engagement with Taiwan. Since the winner of the next Taiwanese presidential election is expected to be less friendly towards Beijing, any US move quickly to bolster security and diplomatic ties with the new government will be a not-so-subtle message for the Chinese leadership. This more assertive tone is far more likely to come from a Republican administration.
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