What could a Romney win mean for US foreign policy?

The race is almost over. Hurricane Sandy brought an abrupt halt to campaigning, but today America will go to the polls and it’s still too close to call. What makes US elections unique is that many people around the world have very strong opinions on them, yet have no say in the process. Such is the status of the US that Presidential change affects much of the globe. It had looked at one stage that the world had little to fear for Obama, the popular candidate internationally, lead polls in most of the crucial swing states. However, since his impressive performance in the first presidential debate, Romney has gained significant ground. Obama looks like he’ll win in- just- but Romney still has a real chance of occupying the White House come tonight.

So if Romney is successful, what would that mean for US foreign policy? Well answering that is surprisingly hard. US voters simply don’t care that much about foreign policy. Though one of the debates was on the subject, the candidates’ focus on jobs shows, as Clinton famously said, that ‘it’s the economy, stupid’ which will determine the election. The other reason is that when they do talk foreign policy, they have much in common. During the debate, both rejected military intervention in Syria. They also shared views on the use of drone strikes, economic sanctions in Iran and support for Israel. It is ironic that the policy area that affects most people is the one that, on the face of it, where there is little to separate them.

There are differences though. They aren’t easy to find, but scratch away and ideological distinctions emerge. Romney, for example, has accused Obama of going on an ‘apology tour’. Whether one agrees with that terminology or not, Obama has tackled foreign issues more subtly than Bush, whose brazen approach instigated two wars and fuelled US hate not only in the Middle East, but even among European allies. So rather than rushing in unilaterally, the US has worked with others and taken a more backseat role, shown in Libya where it was France who led NATO involvement. He has also worked at building new relations like Turkey and has spoken of reducing US domination. Romney disagrees with this with his impassioned declaration that ‘America has not dictated to other nations. We have freed other nations from dictators’. Couple this with his view that ‘America must be strong. America must lead’ and one can deduce that Romney in the White House would result in a more forceful US foreign policy. It may even suggest a paternalistic view, with the US looking after those they consider incapable of doing it themselves. It is unlikely this would be as militarily driven as Bush was, but a Romney win tonight could trigger a return to a US-led top-down approach.

How could this affect particular issues? Well in Syria, although Romney has ruled out military action, a win would see greater US involvement as he plans to arm those fighting Assad. He argues military support for ‘responsible partners’ could defeat Assad and bring in a government who could become useful allies in the region. The problem though is that it is hard to know who responsible partners are. Claims of massacres by the rebels continue to circulate which, though hard to verify, raise questions of whom in Syria Romney would arm. There is a risk then that Romney’s approach, if done wrong, could escalate violence in Syria and so lead to more civilian deaths. Romney has stated his desire for a more peaceful world, but if he is successful tonight, his foreign policy approach to Syria risks undermining that.

Then there’s Iran. Both Obama and Romney support Israel against Iran’s nuclear programme (ironic considering Israel’s own ambiguous nuclear programme) but Obama’s four years in office has seen a cooling in this relationship for he has been frustrated by Netanyahu’s refusals to stop West Bank settlement building, despite numerous requests to do so. Romney however has made very clear he strongly supports Israel, visiting them on his overseas trip this summer. One would expect then that Romney would see the nations’ relationship become iron clad again. This would likely see the Palestinian question kicked further down the road, but could also push the US to the limit over Iran. Despite imposing heavy sanctions, Israel has grown impatient with the US and has suggested strikes against nuclear facilities. Romney has declared that ‘if Israel’s attacked, we have their back’, but if Iran doesn’t strike Israel but continues proliferating, what then? Romney’s desire for peace may become strained, for he considers a nuclear armed Iran as the US’s biggest national security threat. If Iran continues down its current path, Romney’s staunch support for Israel could see him come under increasing pressure for pre-emptive attack. Romney’s strong words on Iran means electoral success could bring even greater friction between the US and Iran. What that could mean is speculative of course, but fears of military action could be raised if Romney turns rhetoric into action.

And what about Europe? The continent is a leading ally yet was barely mentioned in the debate. The opinion of Obama has been that while he still values the relationship, he will focus on developing allies elsewhere. Romney could reverse that. His foreign policy trip took him to the UK and Poland where he stated his desire to revive America’s long standing allies. Would this mean anything practically? Well maybe. America had planned to place missile defence systems in Poland, much to the anger of Russia. Romney labelled the way this was abandoned as ‘unfortunate’. So with a desire to strengthen old alliances and Romney’s view of Russia as a ‘geopolitical foe’, it is just possible that Romney could bring Europe back into play. Will he bring back the missile shields? It would be provocative, but this is a man who wants to declare China a currency manipulator on day one of his presidency, so is not afraid of bold moves. With Iran inching towards nuclear weaponry and a new President willing to take on Russia, it could be that the missile issue, in a different format, could be back on the table and so bring the US back into Europe.

This is speculative of course. Hard words are very different from hard action. Romney knows the economy is the priority, so will be wary of steering too far from it for some time. But while there is no guarantee on the specifics, it does seem that if Romney is successful, the US will play a more prominent role compared to Obama, who has spent much time trying to dial down US involvement and heal friction among their allies. Romney is unlikely to do this militarily as Bush did, but nonetheless a Romney victory would bring more interference and US leadership. How that will look without using military power is hard to say, for it has historically been the go-to tool if the US wants to exert power. Can Romney exert American leadership without using the armed forces? It is unlikely that we will know until the early hours of tomorrow morning whether we will ever get an answer to that question.