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
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How can Labour break the Osborne supremacy?

The Conservative hegemony is deeply embedded - but it can be broken, says Ken Spours.

The Conservative Party commands a majority not just in the House of Commons, but also in the wider political landscape. It holds the political loyalty of expanding and powerful voting constituencies, such as the retired population and private sector businesses and their workers. It is dominant in English politics outside the largest urban centres, and it has ambitions to consolidate its position in the South West and to move into the “Northern Powerhouse”. Most ambitiously, it aims to detach irreversibly the skilled working classes from allegiance to the Labour Party, something that was attempted by Thatcher in the 1980s. Its goal is the building of new political hegemonic bloc that might be termed the Osborne supremacy, after its chief strategist.

The new Conservative hegemony is not simply based on stealing Labour’s political clothes or co-opting the odd political figure, such as Andrew Adonis; it runs much deeper and has been more than a decade the making. While leading conservative thinkers have not seriously engaged with the work of Antonio Gramsci, they act as if they have done. They do this instinctively, although they also work hard at enacting political domination.

 Adaptiveness through a conservative ‘double shuffle’

A major source of the new Conservative hegemony has been its fundamental intellectual political thinking and its adaptive nature. The intellectual foundations were laid in the decades of Keysianism when free market thinkers, notably Hayak and Friedman, pioneered neo-liberal thinking that would burst onto the political scene in Reagan/Thatcher era.  Despite setbacks, following the exhaustion of the Thatcherite political project in the 1990s, it has sprung back to life again in a more malleable form. Its strengths lie not only in its roots in a neo-liberal economy and state, but in a conservative ‘double shuffle’: the combining of neo-Thatcherite economics and social and civil liberalism, represented by a highly flexible and cordial relationship between Osborne and Cameron.  

 Right intellectual and political resources

The Conservative Party has also mobilised an integrated set of highly effective political and intellectual resources that are constantly seeking new avenues of economic, technological, political and social development, able to appropriate the language of the Left and to summon and frame popular common sense. These include well-resourced Right think tanks such as Policy Exchange; campaigning attack organisations, notably, the Taxpayers Alliance; a stratum of websites (e.g. ConservativeHome) and bloggers linked to the more established rightwing press that provide easy outlets for key ideas and stories. Moreover, a modernized Conservative Parliamentary Party provides essential political leadership and is highly receptive to new ideas.

 Very Machiavellian - conservative coercion and consensus

No longer restrained by the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives have also opted for a strategy of coercion to erode the remaining political bastions of the Left with proposed legislation against trade unions, attacks on charities with social missions, reform of the Human Rights Act, and measures to make it more difficult for trade unionists to affiliate to the Labour Party. Coupled with proposed boundary changes and English Votes for English Laws (Evel) in the House of Commons, these are aimed at crippling the organisational capacity of Labour and the wider Left.  It is these twin strategies of consensus and coercion that they anticipate will cohere and expand the Conservative political bloc – a set of economic, political and social alliances underpinned by new institutional ‘facts on the ground’ that aims to irrevocably shift the centre of political gravity.

The strengths and limits of the Conservative political bloc

In 2015 the conservative political bloc constitutes an extensive and well-organised array of ‘ramparts and earthworks’ geared to fighting successful political and ideological ‘wars of position’ and occasional “wars of manoeuvre”. This contrasts sharply with the ramshackle political and ideological trenches of Labour and the Left, which could be characterised as fragmented and in a state of serious disrepair.

The terrain of the Conservative bloc is not impregnable, however, having potential fault lines and weaknesses that might be exploited by a committed and skillful adversary. These include an ideological approach to austerity and shrinking the state that will hit their voting blocs; Europe; a social ‘holding pattern’ and dependence on the older voter that fails to tap into the dynamism of a younger and increasingly estranged generation and, crucially, vulnerability to a new economic crisis because the underlying systemic issues remain unresolved.

 Is the Left capable of building an alternative political bloc?

The answer is not straightforward.  On the one hand, Corbynism is focused on building and energizing a committed core and historically may be recognized as having saved the Labour Party from collapse after a catastrophic defeat in May. The Core may be the foundation of an effective counter bloc, but cannot represent it.  A counter-hegemony will need to be built by reaching out around new vision of a productive economy; a more democratic state that balances national leadership and local discretion (a more democratic version of the Northern Powerhouse); a new social alliance that really articulates the idea of ‘one nation’ and an ability to represent these ideas and visions in everyday, common-sense language. 

 If the Conservatives instinctively understand political hegemony Labour politicians, with one or two notable exceptions, behave as though they have little or no understanding of what is actually going on.  If they hope to win in future this has to change and a good start would be a collective sober analysis of the Conservative’s political and ideological achievements.

This is an extract from The Osborne Supremacy, a new pamphlet by Compass.

Ken Spours is a Professor at the IoE and was Convener of the Compass Education Inquiry. The final report of the Compass Education Inquiry, Big Education can be downloaded here.