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Global Views on Foreign Policy and the U.S. Conventions

Authors: Bartosz Wisniewski, Research Fellow, Polish Institute of International Affairs Andrés Rozental, Founding President and Board Member, Mexican Council on Foreign Relations Sergey Kulik, Director, Institute of Contemporary Development
August 23, 2012

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The U.S. presidential nomination conventions largely will focus on domestic issues, but a number of high-profile foreign policy issues -- including immigration, U.S.-Russia relations, and the role the United States plays as a major world power --could also be highlighted in convention speeches and the parties' platforms. Three experts from international policy institutions weigh in on possible foreign policy themes in the 2012 conventions.

Bartosz Wiśniewski of the Polish Institute of International Affairs says party platforms will show the degree to which the political establishment is keen on a more constrained global role for the United States and a narrower definition of the U.S. national interest. Andrés Rozental at the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations says that with other "immediate foreign policy concerns," there isn't much room for an active policy on Latin America, but that Mexicans will watching the degree to which U.S.-Mexico relations are addressed in speeches and party platforms. The Institute of Contemporary Development's Sergey Kulik says any anti-Russia rhetoric coming from "such an authoritative platform" as the conventions could inflame anti-American rhetoric in the Russian media, but any opening for a broader relationship would be viewed as positive.

Bartosz Wisniewski, Research Fellow, Polish Institute of International Affairs

Given that foreign policy has taken a back seat during the presidential campaign, conventional wisdom suggests that there is little to be expected from the upcoming conventions of both the Republican and the Democratic Party in terms of both sides' visions of America's role in the world. Indeed, if the Obama-Romney duel will be decided on the issues of economic stewardship, then there's no need to burden the voters with one's ideas for stabilizing Afghanistan, handling the threat of nuclear proliferation, responding to the rise of China, or addressing a myriad of other pressing but otherwise intractable challenges.

So why should anyone outside the United States care? To begin with, both party platforms will hold important hints when it comes to measuring the extent to which the political establishment in general is keen on embarking on the "America first" course: scaling down U.S. overseas obligations and zeroing in on the pressing challenges at home.

Granted, mainstream Democrat and Republican politicians shun isolationist recipes, but could flirt with the idea of "selective engagement"--a more constrained understanding of America's global role and a narrower definition of the U.S. national interest. Thus, the conventions could serve as litmus tests of the pervasiveness of this line of thinking, but nothing more. In fact, even the party platforms adopted during the 2004 presidential campaign, which wasn't as tilted toward the domestic agenda as the current one, were rather thin on detail when it came to international affairs.

Still, America's allies, partners, and rivals are likely to read from whatever tea leaves the conventions will offer--be it official documents, candidates' speeches, or other official statements. In Europe, two sets of issues are likely to dominate this exercise. First, how does the United States conceptualize its role as a "European power" in an era of simultaneous strategic retrenchment and growing demands for American involvement and leadership in other regions, most notably in the Asia-Pacific? Secondly, what role does Europe have in the U.S. grand strategy in the coming years--specifically, does America continue to assign to its European partners an expectation that they play an increasingly independent role as a positive, stabilizing power toward their eastern and southern neighborhoods and the wider world?

Central Europeans might want to ask a third question: What is the future of the vision of "Europe whole, free, and at peace," which was the key driver of America's post-Cold War strategy in this part of the world? Is it still feasible, or will the current borders of NATO and the EU become the new fault lines? It might be tempting to consider Central Europe a "finished chapter," but it's not necessarily so further to the East. That's something worth a thought--even though the audiences in Tampa and Charlotte are unlikely to pay attention.

Andrés Rozental, Founding President and Board Member, Mexican Council on Foreign Relations

Political conventions in the United States are not usually important in the eyes of Mexicans, especially when --as is the case this year--there is no suspense as to whom each party will anoint as its presidential and vice presidential candidates. What does matter to those in Mexico who follow foreign policy issues and the U.S.-Mexico relationship is whether and how issues important to our country are addressed in the various speeches and party platforms.

The inflammatory positions taken by many Republican politicians, including the presumptive presidential nominee, on immigration and social issues are sure to alienate many Mexicans and Hispanics in the United States. On this score, what has so far characterized the political campaigns and what will most probably figure in the convention rhetoric is not promising. Foreign policy doesn't usually play a significant role with voters and their decisions on whom they choose on Election Day, nor do global issues matter more than domestic economic and social concerns. This is especially true when Americans are mired in stagnant economic growth, high unemployment, and lowered expectations, as is the case today.

With the United States still militarily engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq, together with immediate foreign policy concerns in the Middle East and relations with both Russia and China, there isn't much room for an active policy toward Mexico or other parts of Latin America. As CFR President Richard Haass once said, "Latin America isn't a problem for Washington at the moment, so why worry about it?" President Obama's decision to allow hundreds of thousands of undocumented young people to remain in the United States under the deportation relief program is applauded by many Mexicans and goes a long way toward inclining support for Democrats rather than Republicans.

While we continue to watch developments on the U.S. election scene, in Mexico we have already chosen a new president who takes office on December 1 and brings expectations of continued satisfactory economic performance, a different strategy for fighting violence and criminality, and a new team of government officials. It is still unclear to me what a PRI administration will bring to Mexico's foreign policy agenda, but signs are encouraging that the almost total emphasis on the security aspects of the U.S.-Mexico relationship will be replaced by a more balanced economic and social set of issues, including energy, trade, investment, and hopefully a renewed push for comprehensive immigration reform to complement the initial steps taken by President Obama in recent months.

Sergey Kulik, Director, Institute of Contemporary Development

The party conventions of the Democrats and Republicans are perceived as important platforms for analyzing U.S. priorities. At the same time, they are largely perceived by Russian pundits as an element of public diplomacy. In light of presidential candidate Mitt Romney's statements about Russia, the Republican convention will be followed with heightened attention. The Democratic convention is of interest only to the extent that President Obama elaborates on new aspects of U.S. foreign policy, particularly with regard to Russia. Authorities might be less sensitive to Barack Obama's criticism of Russia than to Romney's.

Any anti-Russia rhetoric coming from such an authoritative platform as the conventions could be actively used to further elevate anti-American rhetoric in the Russian media. Although the anti-American tone has somewhat abated recently, the United States has been a target of criticism by those seeking to justify a more hardline political course for Russia both domestically and externally.

The conventions could also initiate a public discussion on Russian fiscal reform. Democrats are seen as adherents to the policies of a welfare state, while the challengers are proponents of austerity policies. The position of the Republican candidates, vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan's in particular, could provide an "external argument" in favor of some hardline social cutbacks if the economic situation worsens in Russia.

In addition, work is under way on a revised Foreign Policy Concept of Russia, and the final document will be adjusted following the conclusion of the U.S. presidential campaign. If Russia is touched upon at either of the conventions in a negative or positive light, this could be reflected in the document. This concerns positions not only directly related to the United States, but also other foreign policy areas and priorities.

Emphasis on the U.S. adoption of the Magnitsky Law or on the deployment of a large-scale ballistic missile in Europe by NATO will have an adverse impact on the formation of the new foreign policy concept, even if mentioned together with the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment. This amendment is perceived as a solely U.S. problem with no real impact on Russian interests.

An important issue is the lack of at least some sort of framework strategy for bilateral relations over the next four years. This is particularly true beyond the arms control issue, including with regard to development of economic, scientific and technological cooperation, collaboration on the international arena, and strengthening of civil ties. If at the conventions there is an indication of readiness for dialogue in these areas--even if just in the most general formulations--then this would be positive.

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