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
Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses