The presidential primaries are finally underway in the United States, with candidates competing for the right to be the Republican challenger to Barack Obama in November. (Obama is unopposed as the Democrat nominee.)
Although Federal Union is a British organisation, it is firmly of the view that events in other countries are not necessarily foreign, and of nothing is this more true that the election of the American president. The US is the world’s largest military power and its largest single national economy, which means that whatever the Americans do has a great impact on the rest of the world, too.
Four years ago, this blog was unfashionably sceptical of Barack Obama himself (read an analysis here), but possibly a wise judgement as it has turned out. But what to make now of the Republican candidates traipsing through Iowa and New Hampshire and on to South Carolina and beyond?
The front runner is Mitt Romney, whose proposed foreign policy is predictably the most similar to that of the incumbent. (American policy shows a remarkable degree of continuity regardless of the election result.) He criticises Barack Obama’s plans to reduce the size of the American armed forces, proposing a minimum expenditure of 4 per cent of GDP, but such suggestions are easy to make in isolation from a discussion about what taxes might be raised or other expenditure cut in order to afford it. He wants to be tougher with rivals such as Russia and China and tougher still with threats such as Iran and North Korea, but these are changes of emphasis rather than direction compared with the current administration. And we must remember he is competing at present for the support of Republican voters: he has to tickle their prejudices rather than confront them with facts. Why else would his view “that the unilateral attempt to decide issues that are designated for final negotiations is unacceptable” is one to be directed “to the Palestinians” alone?
Newt Gingrich is more definite about the challenges facing America. For him, the US is “engaged in a long war against radical Islamism”. He claims that, in the case of Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, “Only a grand strategy for marginalizing, isolating, and defeating radical Islamists across the world will lead to victory.” However, he also warns that “Military force must be used judiciously and with clear, obtainable objectives understood by Congress.” Which is to say that George W Bush was simultaneously too soft and too tough.
Rick Santorum takes the Gingrich view, only more so. His toughness on Iran amounts to outright war straightaway, sub-contracting decisions about that war to an ally: “Stand with Israel as an ally and in any efforts Israel may take to defend themselves from Iranian aggression”. Never mind what Congress thinks, the Knesset should decide. He is surely correct to say that American foreign policy should reflect American values, but his interpretation of American values is theocratic as must as it is democratic.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is Ron Paul, a libertarian Congressman from Texas, who wants less war-fighting and not more. How can the US “Only send our military into conflict with a clear mission” if the enemy is Newt Gingrich’s radical Islamism? The Republicans are offered a clear choice. But there is a danger that America might withdraw too much: “We should only fight when it’s in our national security interest, and we should no longer do the corrupt United Nation’s bidding by policing the world.” If America is, as Ronald Reagan said, the world’s “abiding alternative to tyranny” (quoted by Newt Gingrich), then some kind of policing role is essential.
If all this ideology is not to your taste, then there is Jon Huntsman. He is a former ambassador – he resigned as ambassador to China in order to run for president – and knows something of the world outside American. He even has a map on his website! He is the only one to have anything to say about the European sovereign debt crisis which, if it is not resolved, has the potential to throw off course anything the US might try to do with its own economic revival. But he is currently polling below satirical comedian Stephen Colbert, so his brand of experience is unlikely to be put up against Barack Obama when the November election comes round.
From a British perspective, Mitt Romney offers the least change compared with the policies of President Obama. Messrs Gingrich and Santorum would change things in one direction, Ron Paul would change them in the other. Whatever frustrations we might feel at Obama’s failure to live up to his initial promise, we should cross our fingers that Gingrich, Santorum and Paul are never given the opportunity to live up to theirs.