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A Global Election?

News & Features | October 29, 2012

From negative political ads flooding television channels to President Obama and Governor Romney lashing out fiercely in the debates, practically breathing accusations down one another’s necks, each candidate has worked tirelessly to persuade the public that his policies would lead to a radically better America. For both, the focus has been on the economy and health care—domestic issues that the American public obsesses over. But what about international policy? As the presidential debate on foreign affairs looms near, Obama and Romney will try to distance themselves from each other as much as possible. The bottom line is that, in terms of foreign affairs, the election isn’t as important as the presidential candidates—or other countries for that matter—would like you to think.

The 2008 election was a different story. After the ultimately unpopular presidency of George W. Bush, President Obama achieved unprecedented popularity rates among citizens other countries, especially in Europe. Opinion polls from Pew Research Center reveal that 86% of Europeans and 85% of the Japanese had confidence in Obama when he was inaugurated into office in 2009. Simultaneously, America’s world image improved markedly. For example, only 42% of the French had held favorable views towards the US under the Bush administration in 2008, whereas those ratings skyrocketed to 75% with the inauguration of Obama in 2009—over a 30% increase. In nearly every region of the world, a similarly positive increase in America’s image occurred, with the notable exceptions of Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, and Pakistan.

Obama’s superstar popularity has waned since 2009, however. Only Poland, Russia, and Japan have more favorable images of America in 2012 than they did in 2009, when Obama first came to power. The President’s use of drones is particularly controversial and despised abroad. According to the same Pew Research Study, the United States is the only country in the world where over half the population (62%) supports the use of drones. For instance, in Greece, only 5% of the people agree with Obama’s use of drones. Britain comes closest to approving the use of drones with a 44% approval rate, but even then the number of people disapproving the use of drones (47%) exceeds that. Despite President Obama’s talk of multilateralism and overhauling America’s foreign policy, it seems that other nations are disenchanted with Obama, especially with regards to continued American unilateralism in military affairs.

The question becomes more interesting when comparing President Obama’s image to Governor Romney’s image abroad. Despite declining ratings towards Obama overseas, 79.49% of people in other nations would rather have Obama win the 2012 election than Romney, as revealed in a study conducted by The Economist earlier this month. The important question, then, is how much these popularity ratings really matter. Will other nations drastically change their relationship with the US based on their prejudices towards each candidate? Most experts conclude probably not.

Unlike the election in 2008, the 2012 election simply isn’t particularly important to other nations. As the Pew Research study explains, “Global publics are much less interested in the 2012 US presidential election than they were in the 2008 contest. For example, four years ago 56% of Germans were closely following the race, compared with just 36% now.” Despite the fact that Obama enjoys higher popularity than Romney, Bruce Stokes of CNN argues that, “In the long run, if Romney wins, none of this may matter as Europeans get to know him.” Stokes does admit, however, that there may be a short-term impact on America’s public image if Romney were elected. He cites the 2004 re-election of George W. Bush, which led to a temporary decline in favorable opinion towards the United States among other countries. A similar reaction would likely occur if Romney was elected, but it doesn’t seem that the election will drastically alter America’s public image.

Another important fact to remember is that US foreign policy, unlike domestic policy, is surprisingly bipartisan. American foreign policy, as revealed by a 2012 Chicago Council Survey of American Public Opinion and US Foreign Policy, doesn’t change drastically between administrations. Comparing both Obama’s and Romney’s platform on foreign affairs yields more similarities than differences. They agree on issues ranging from ending the war in Afghanistan to supporting Israel to intervening in the affairs of other countries. Both candidates recognize that the United States cannot be bogged down in more foreign conflicts and they both agree with shifting the emphasis on foreign policy away from the Middle East and towards Asia.

However, it is unlikely that both candidates would run foreign affairs in exactly the same way. With regards to three countries in particular – Israel, China, and Russia – who wins the election may make a substantial difference in our relations with those nations, even if overall American foreign policy stays the same. Most notably, Romney criticizes China, telling Americans in his political advertisements that, “It’s time to stand up to the cheaters and make sure we protect jobs for the American people.” He maintains that China has manipulated its currency, and that America needs to increase its military presence and arms sales to allies in the region. Romney’s approach to China, as The New York Times explains, “would amount to a profound shift in a policy toward China that has remained remarkably constant for decades across Republican and Democratic administrations.”

Mitt Romney levels a similar critique against Obama’s supposed “reset” in relations with Russia. Instead of achieving beneficial gains, Romney claims, Obama’s policies towards Russia have been too accommodating to Russian interests. As The Washington Times explains, “Mitt Romney has assembled a foreign-policy platform rooted in the belief that adversaries such as Russia must be confronted for backsliding on democracy.” With a strategy based on bolstering military alliances in Central Asia and increasing military training and assistance, Romney appears to consistently be more hard line and hawkish than Obama.

Obama’s policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been an abysmal failure, says Romney, and many people agree at least somewhat. In 2009, 46% of the international community believed Obama would “be fair” with the Israelis and Palestinians. Today, only 18% believe he has been fair, while 59% say he has not. As explained on his website, Romney’s two-part plan includes working with Israel to maintain its “strategic military edge” and making it clear that “the United States will reduce assistance to the Palestinians if they continue to pursue United Nations recognition or form a unity government that includes Hamas, a terrorist group dedicated to Israel’s destruction.”

It’s difficult to determine if Romney intends to carry through on these war-hawkish promises or if these claims are merely an election strategy meant to garner more votes. Uri Dadush, director of the International Economics Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, thinks that Romney won’t follow through on most of these hard line approaches towards other countries. “There is a lot of game playing on both sides,” Dadush explains. “Once in office, presidents tend to recognize that the Chinese don’t react well when you point a gun to their head.” The New York Times holds a similar view, admitting that, “In the 2008 presidential campaign Mr. Obama also promised to label China a currency manipulator. But once in office, he opted for behind-the-scenes pressure on Beijing to let the renminbi strengthen. So has every president since 1994.”

The historical record and both candidates’ platforms, seem to indicate that, except for a few notable exceptions, American foreign policy would stay mostly the same regardless of who is in the Oval Office.