Despite the primacy and obvious importance of the economy in shaping the daily lives of American voters, it is unfortunate that foreign policy is receiving so little attention. After all, the US is still at war and crucial strategic choices await Washington in the next four years. But you would not know that if you had followed the Republican or Democratic conventions held in the last two weeks.
There is indeed no shortage of crucial decisions to be made by the next president. As Jackson Diehl from the Washington Post puts it: “This presidential election will likely determine whether the United States and Russia undertake a major new reduction of nuclear weapons; whether US arms are supplied to Syrian rebels; whether more US troops are withdrawn from Afghanistan next year; and whether Washington renews pressure on Israel to accept terms for a Palestinian state. It could significantly lower the threshold for a US military strike against Iran.” In dealing with all these issues, the number one rule of Washington will be the guiding factor. What is the number one rule in Washington? Very simple: “The urgent trumps the important.” Therefore if there is a new economic crisis, the urgency of this situation -- say, the collapse of the euro or congressional deadlock in budget and debt discussions -- will overshadow all other important foreign policy issues.
With all these caveats in mind, let's look at foreign policy areas where Barack Obama and Mitt Romney differ. As President Obama made it clear sarcastically during his convention speech on Thursday, first comes Russia. I say sarcastically because Obama mocked Romney's decision to declare that Russia is America's “number one geopolitical foe” as a clear sign that his opponent is still stuck in a Cold War mindset. The logic of the Romney camp in choosing Russia may have been to put pressure on Obama for the failure of his “reset” policy with Moscow. Another factor was probably to embarrass the White House. President Obama, in what he thought was a private aside with then-President Dmitry Medvedev during talks focusing on nuclear stockpiles reduction told him that “after my election I will have more flexibility.” It is well known that Romney opposes Obama's New Start Treaty, which made a modest trim in nuclear warheads.
Another area where Obama and Romney differ is the calendar to exit Afghanistan. Romney opposes the reduction of forces next year and says he will follow the advice of generals. What about the urgent question of Syria? Obama still rejects proposals that the United States help establish safe zones within the country. He is also opposed to providing military assistance to rebels. Romney, on the other hand, wants to arm the opposition and believes the US should take a much more active leadership role. In many ways he mocks the idea that America can “lead from behind.” But perhaps the starkest difference between the two candidates comes on the question of Iran. Of course, both candidates are against a nuclear Iran. But it is clear that the Romney camp is much more hawkish when it comes to the use of military force to stop Iran from even obtaining “nuclear capability.” The Obama White House position is that the US will prevent Iran from “obtaining a nuclear weapon.” This is a subtle yet critically important difference. The Romney camp has also been much more vocal than Obama for its support of Israel to defend itself. For Obama, it is no secret that an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities would be a nightmare scenario, especially if this happens before the elections.
At the end of the day there are stark differences between the two candidates' foreign policy visions. With Obama the world already knows that the US will follow a tested and balanced strategy. With Romney, on the other hand, there are many unknowns. A lot will depend on whether the realists or the neoconservatives in his camp end up dominating the debate.