Obama and Romney urgently need to zero in on foreign policy

We're a long way from the days of the cold war, but the need for smart power endures.

Since the early years of the cold war, foreign policy has generally ceased to be the biggest issue for American voters in presidential elections.  Instead, the economy is what matters most.

November’s presidential ballot will - probably – continue this pattern.  Voters remain most concerned by the sluggish economic recovery which last week prompted the Federal Reserve to begin a new, third round of quantitative easing.

Nonetheless, Americans are still thinking about foreign policy. In recent days, for instance, many will have reflected upon the tragic murder of four of their countrymen in Libya, and the ongoing protests in numerous Muslim-majority countries at an anti-Islamic film originating in America.

More than a decade after 9/11, a critical mass of the electorate believes America should engage more cautiously in international affairs, with the possible exception of Iran.  Here, some polls show sizeable public support for efforts to prevent Tehran developing nuclear weapons, even if that necessitates American military action.

Iran is just one of the international issues on which Republican nominee Mitt Romney has articulated a more assertive posture than Democratic candidate Barack Obama.  Others examples include Russia which Romney has declared Washington’s “number one” geopolitical foe.  And, China, which the Republican nominee has accused of stealing US technology and intellectual property, and of currency manipulation - with the implicit threat of sanctions should he become president. 

Given the apparent differences between the two candidates, and the large stakes in play, many international audiences beyond the American border are showing a keen interest in the election outcome. According to a Pew Global Attitudes Project report from June, more than a third of populations in countries as diverse as Britain, Germany, Jordan, Lebanon, China, India, and Japan are either “closely or somewhat closely” following the campaign.

As in 2008, international publics tend to favour Obama’s election in 2012.  But there has been a marked decline in international approval of his policies since he took office.

According to Pew, the fall-off in support for the president’s policies has been a massive 30 percentage points between 2009 and 2012 in China (from 57 per cent to 27 per cent); in several key European countries including Britain, France, Germany, Spain, and Poland, the average reduction in support is 15 percentage points (from 78 per cent to a still high 63 per cent); and in numerous key Muslim-majority countries (including Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan and Turkey), the average fall-off is 19 percentage points from an already low 34 per cent to 15 per cent.

At least part of the decline in Obama’s numbers since 2009 was inevitable inasmuch as international expectations about him where unrealistically high when he entered the White House. Two of the main international criticisms of his foreign policy (as was the case with the Bush administration’s) are over-reliance on "hard power", and also unilateralism.

Despite Obama’s withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, and his commitment to a similar military pull-out in Afghanistan, there has been much international criticism for instance of his administration’s use of unmanned, remotely-flown aircraft to kill terrorists.  In 17 of the 20 countries surveyed by Pew, more than half of voters disagree with the use of these drone attacks.

These international numbers can only be expected to fall further if Romney wins in November and follows through on his assertive foreign policy rhetoric.  This could be amplified by the fact that he enjoys less personal popularity overseas than Obama.

A key question is whether Obama and Romney should care about what the rest of the world thinks? After all, no foreign citizens will vote in November.

The short answer is "yes".

Some in America completely dismiss the importance of international opinion.  Such short-sightedness neglects the crucial role it can play in facilitating foreign policy co-operation and information sharing with Washington, both overt and covert. 

Many of the diverse foreign policy challenges facing America today require extensive international collaboration, especially at a time of budgetary cutbacks.  As key members of the Obama team have asserted, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, such cooperation can be enabled by American policy demonstrating a better combination of soft power (including diplomacy that generates admiration rather than antagonism) and prudent use of hard power. 

Combining hard and soft power more effectively (into what is now called smart power) was well understood by previous generations of American policymakers.  For instance, Washington skilfully used both assets after the Second World War to cultivate support for a system of alliances and institutions, such as NATO, the IMF, World Bank and the UN, that subsequently became a cornerstone of Western success in the second half of the century.

To be sure, today’s world is very different from that of the cold war.  But, the need for smart power endures.

Given the mood of the American electorate, the development of a comprehensive, coherent and well resourced smart power strategy will not win many votes for Obama nor Romney in November.  Nonetheless, this should be a pressing concern for both candidates if they are to fulfil their similar pledges to renew the country’s world leadership for a new generation.

Andrew Hammond was formerly America Editor at Oxford Analytica, and a Special Adviser in the UK Government

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Photograph: Getty Images

Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS (the Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy) at the London School of Economics.

 

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Why Game of Thrones is the perfect show for the modern age

There is something horribly relatable about George R R Martin’s world of Westeros, whose characters have now become part of public myth.

By now, it feels as if George R R Martin – the author of Game of Thrones, narrative sadist and ruiner of all things beautiful and good – has been appointed scriptwriter for the news. I am not the first to observe this. Martin is famous for killing off everyone’s favourite characters and sending his stories careering into pits of bleak uncertainty just when you thought everything might turn out all right. Since Prince became the latest beloved star to die this year, it has become abundantly clear that life is imitating Game of Thrones, and there’s nothing to do but watch the next bit through your fingers and try to avoid spoilers.

The staggeringly popular HBO show based on Martin’s books is in its sixth season, and it is wild, glorious trash. I mean that as a compliment. I love this horrible, problematic show more than I can possibly justify, so I’ve stopped trying. It is hardly a social-justice warrior’s dream, given that it seems to be racing against itself to sexually degrade as many female characters as possible in the space of a 45-minute episode.

The argument for the endless misogynist violence is that it has to be shown, not to titillate viewers, absolutely not, but because that sort of thing just happened back in the murky medieval past. This would be a decent excuse if sexual violence were indeed a thing of the past; or, come to that, if Game of Thrones was actually set in the past, instead of in a fictional fantasy world where there are shape-shifters, zombies and dragons.

There is one aspect, however, in which Game of Thrones has a claim to being the most realistic show on television. Despite the wizards, the wights and the way every character manages to maintain perfect hair even when they’re being pointlessly tortured to death, there is something horribly relatable about Martin’s world of Westeros, whose characters have now become part of public myth. What sets it apart is not the monsters, the nudity or the festering gallons of gratuitous gore, but the overwhelming sense that the plot got run off the rails three books ago and is being steered towards a terrible precipice by a bunch of bickering, power-mad maniacs. This, coincidentally, happens to be the plot of the entire 21st century so far.

Viewers might tune in for what the actor Ian McShane called the “tits and dragons”, but they stay for the unremitting horror. Martin gleefully tramples over all the tropes of conventional sword-and-sorcery fiction. There are no noble quests or heroes’ journeys. Instead, horrible things happen to good people for no reason. Heroism goes extremely unrewarded. The few times injustice does get punished, it happens by accident. Fair maidens are not saved, protagonists are slaughtered at random, and war is always a stupid idea, even though the ­surviving cast members are still trying to solve all their problems by waging it.

Most fans of the show have idly wondered which warring noble house they’d want to be born into. Are you brave and upstanding like the Starks, an entitled aristocrat like the Lannisters, or a mad pirate bastard like the Greyjoys? Personally, I like to think that I’d be at home in Dorne, where knife-fighting and aggressive bisexuality are forms of greeting, but the truth is that I’d have been dead for at least two seasons by now and so would you. And not excitingly dead, either. Not beheaded-by-the-king dead, or burned-as-a-blood-sacrifice-to-the-god-of-fire-by-your-own-father dead. Statistically speaking, we’d be peasants. We probably wouldn’t even get names. We’d just be eating mud and waiting for the war to be over. You know it’s true.

The moral lessons so far are murky but sensible. Dragons are awesome. Men are invariably dreadful. Following religious zealots into battle is a poor life decision. Honour is a made-up concept that will probably get you killed. Most importantly, there are very few truly evil people in the world: instead, there are just stupid people, and scared people, and petty, vindictive people, and sometimes those people get put in charge of armies and nations, and that’s when the rest of us are really buggered. That’s what Game of Thrones is about.

I’m not even confident of a happy ending. I’ve made peace with knowing that my favourite characters are unlikely to make it out of the series alive, and even if they do, it won’t matter, because a giant army of ice zombies is coming to eat the world.

And that’s what makes it brilliant. There are plenty of horrible, sexy things on television, and in these anxious times every novelist worth his advance seems to be turning his hand to grim dystopian fiction. The problem with most dystopias, though, is that they’re too predictable. They serve up worlds where, however awful things get, someone is at least in charge. They are comforting for that reason, in the same way as conspiracy theories are comforting. It is less distressing to believe, for instance, that a secret race of lizard people is managing the destiny of the human race than to believe that nobody is managing it at all.

Stories help us rehearse trauma. They help us prepare for it. You sit down to watch terrible things happening to made-up people and you imagine how you’d cope if that were you, or someone you loved, and even if the answer is “not at all” you find yourself feeling a bit better. Right now, the really frightening prospect is that the world is actually being run by vicious idiots with only half a plan between them who are too busy fighting each other to pay attention to the weather, which is about to kill us all.

That, along with the epic theme music, is why I still love Game of Thrones. It feels like aversion therapy for the brutal randomness of modern politics, with a side order of CGI monsters and a lot of shagging. There you go. I hope that’s given you all the excuse you need to tune in for season six. I did my best. If you need me, I’ll be behind the sofa. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism