A notable characteristic of American foreign policy has been the extent of continuity from one president to the next. There are exceptions, of course, but fewer than you might think.
George W Bush has been misunderestimated, for example, in that the global contest with Islamist terrorism, particularly in Afghanistan, started under Bill Clinton, as did the use of military force to undermine the regime of Saddam Hussein. Even the first steps by the American military away from Nato took place in Bosnia and then Kosovo in the 1990s.
In that light, how much might be at stake in the election taking place today between Barack Obama and John McCain? As far as economic policy is concerned, much of what the two of them have said during the campaign has been wiped out by the financial crash. It is unlikely that Obama’s spending plans can be maintained when his country’s financial system remains on life-support.
Foreign policy options have not been curtailed in quite the same way by the financial crash, but even here America’s options are more limited than the two candidates have sometimes been willing to admit. So many of America’s interests are tied up in the actions of other countries around the world, and those countries’ governments are not going to be changed as a result of today’s election. The dependence of America on Chinese manufacturing and Saudi oil might be reduced over time as the recession sets in and alternative energy sources found, but that will take time. Russia and Iran might find themselves a little less assertive if the oil price continues to fall. Maybe Europe will improve the way it acts on the world stage, with or without the Lisbon treaty.
A major difference between the two presidential candidates is the way in which they are seen around the world. Barack Obama is much more well-known and well-liked – he would win by an enormous margin if everyone in the world could have a vote – whereas John McCain, by policies and by temperament, does not seem to inspire a lot of affection. Obama, then, has a moment of goodwill, should he be elected. If he is as good a politician at governing as he is a politician at campaigning, he will surely use this for all he can.