US & Canada

US candidates face up to foreign policy dilemmas

Protester in Cairo destroy US flag. 11 Sept 2012
Image caption Washington often finds itself the target of protests in the Arab world, despite its support for reform

Consensus is perhaps too strong a word but, for all the political rhetoric, there was a good measure of agreement between the two US presidential contenders at last night's final and crucial debate focusing on foreign policy.

Whether on the Arab upheavals, opposition to direct US military involvement in Syria or policy towards China or Israel, President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney circled around each other but did not offer sharply differing policies.

For all the apparent divisions on the campaign trail this final debate was about proving statesmanship and a capacity to lead and to keep America safe.

In short, both candidates had to deal with the reality - a Middle East facing perhaps decades of upheaval, a resurgent al-Qaeda franchise in sub-Saharan Africa, an Iran seemingly intent on pursuing its nuclear enrichment activities and a rising China which shows a greater willingness to act robustly in a region that it sees as its own backyard.

The next president will have to contend with Washington's diminishing ability to pull the levers of power in the Middle East.

The passing of Arab dictators - some of them firm friends of Washington - has left a vacuum into which Islamist political forces of varying shades have stepped.

As the contrasting responses to the crises in Libya and Syria illustrates, there probably can be no "one size fits all" approach to the region. Turbulence is likely to be routine. All Washington can do is to hold its remaining friends close while trying to deal with each of the post-authoritarian regimes on their individual merits.

The back-drop to the next president's foreign policy is the persistent and potentially corrosive debate about US decline.

Image caption The US intends to redeploy about 60% of its fleet to the Asia-Pacific region by 2020

This has become an academic industry in itself, with books and articles showering from commentators and think-tanks alike.

The bulk seem to take US decline as a given, citing the familiar platitudes of economic sluggishness at home and a rising China boldly marching towards a new Pacific century.

A minority of the commentary takes issue with the whole idea of decline, insisting that for all its problems, the US remains the "city on the hill": the example which even so many of its detractors want to copy and at the very least - and here the contrast with China is significant - the US remains one of the few countries that has an expansive world role seemingly written into its DNA.

Of course, though, something fundamental has changed.

That proud "uni-polar moment" after the Cold War when the US reigned supreme as the only superpower could not last.

With the strait-jacket of the Cold War removed, all sorts of tensions were released and, while its strategic significance can be debated, the economic shift to Asia is an accelerating reality.

One scholar, Michael J Mazarr of the US National War College, has coined the term "strategic insolvency" to describe Washington's predicament.

The essence of this concept is that US foreign policy has to change because not only can America no longer afford the old ways - Mr Romney has struggled to explain how he would fund increased military expenditure and an expansion of the US Navy - but because the whole pattern of inter-state relations between Washington and both its friends and enemies has changed too.

Iranian sanctions

This then is the reality with which both US Presidential candidates have to contend. Judgements have to be made once the campaign is over.

Israel has skilfully played upon the dangers from a potentially nuclear Iran. But what are the options? Is there any alternative to continuing with sanctions?

Neither candidate appears to want to unleash another US military intervention in the region, though both clearly would not rule out the use of force.

Where does Iran stand in the potential list of threats facing the next resident of the White House? Is it more dangerous than an already nuclear-armed and failing Pakistan?

When might the next nuclear crisis erupt on the Korean peninsula? And how long before the absence of any progress towards peace between Israel and the Palestinians combines with the broader instabilities in the region to provoke a crisis again?

Here Syria's unfolding drama could easily provide the touch-paper for a wider conflagration.

Welcome to the real world, Mr President!

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