No Clear Frontrunner, but a Very Clear Direction in the US Primary Elections

The US primaries are not yet decided, but the future course of America’s foreign and security policy is already clear: a more cooperative and humbler US, and one which wishes to work with its allies. The tilt to the 'left' in Washington is both significant, and unmistakable.

By Michael Williams and Jonathan Eyal

Tuesday’s round of primaries – accounting for a vast number of the electoral votes required for the parties’ nominations to the US presidential elections – was ultimately inconclusive. In the Democratic camp, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are condemned to fight on. Even in the Republican camp, where matters should have been clearer, they are not: Senator John McCain is evidently in the lead, yet his opponents are still determined to continue the battle.

Nevertheless, even at this early stage, some elements are already discernable, with some certainty. First, many European stereotypes about US elections have been shattered: the traditional views which foreigners have about US presidential contests already look wrong. The usual perception outside the US is that American elections are won by those with the most money. Not true: the moneyed candidates in the Republican camp have failed. Indeed, Mrs Clinton’s formidable electoral machine, although still revived by her wins in New Hampshire or Florida can nevertheless still grind to a halt, largely because of her own perceived strategic mistakes. So, money does not buy votes, as many Europeans believe.

Furthermore, there is also a common belief among ‘intellectuals’ outside America that US elections are essentially a circus, where no intelligent debate takes place and where the world hardly gets a mention. Wrong again: the current elections are almost certain to be a showdown between two weighty candidates, with experience and intelligence to match, with foreign policy very much part of the debate.

What else can be predicted at this stage? In the Democratic camp, either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton will be weighty candidates. In the Republican camp only Senator McCain – the current standard-bearer – has a realistic chance of holding the White House for his party in the November elections.

Let us take another punt on equally good odds - whatever happens to the White House, Congress is likely to remain in the Democrats’ hands. The conclusion from these three assumptions - all of which we believe to be fair to make - is relatively straightforward: US politics look set to veer to the left in the next four years.

The US is going to tilt towards an agenda that will be well received in Europe. The overall tenor of US foreign policy will most likely shift further away from the aggressive posture of the Bush Administration. This means that US diplomacy will most likely be more consultative and perhaps even truly ‘engaged’. Whoever inherits the White House will have to grapple with three existing wars - Iraq, Afghanistan and the ‘war on terror’, as well as the general weariness of the American public about military engagements and the burden which this places on the US armed forces. On the Republican side, the most hawkish candidates have been eliminated. While John McCain could be considered a hawk and is very assertive on national security issues, he is also a veteran that has experienced both war and torture. As such, he will be more careful than the current administration in committing US forces to armed conflict and will be more realistic about the efficacy of force. As he said in a recent interview, war is the worst - or next to worst outcome - of any political conflict.

America Decides logo (small)Both leading Democrats will also be more cautious on foreign affairs, but at the same time they will need to prove their national security credentials. As such, Europe should not expect an overnight shift in US foreign policy. Democrats are still Americans and they will be forceful on certain issues. The Democrats are more likely to work to get US forces out of Iraq sooner rather than later. The most drastic shift would most likely come from Senator Obama. For the time being, however, it is clear the Bush way of doing business has been repudiated by the US electorate. The idea that force can solve security problems is now quite unfashionable, in both the mainstream Republican and Democratic camps. The war on terror will continue and there is still the possibility that a flare-up with Iran will prompt American military action. However, there is no question in our mind that the US - almost regardless of who leads it - is likely to adopt a more co-operative stance in international affairs and is unlikely to have the stomach for major military operations.

Of significant interest to Europe will also be greater US involvement in tackling global climate change. All of the major candidates have signalled their willingness to engage in a renewed national and international drive to address critical environmental issues. Within the US there is a perceived lack of leadership on the issue. The Federal Government is being sued by several states for failure to protect the American people because the Federal Government has allegedly neglected and even actively obstructed efforts to address climate change. Both Clinton and Obama believe that the issue is urgent, and that the US should join international efforts to contain environmental degradation. So does Senator McCain. True, this may not mean that the US would join the Kyoto Accord on global warming immediately; the Accord is now being renegotiated, and discussions are already afoot to find a replacement. But it does mean that the opposition of the Bush Administration to global environmental controls is now doomed and that the US will return to the negotiating table on the environment. The Democrats will most likely be more active on these issues, but Senator McCain has also proved to be committed to dealing with the environment.

While a more engaged and consultative foreign policy and a new involvement on ‘green’ issues are two of the main changes in the US that we are bound to see, there is also reason for concern.

One area for worry is in the area of trade. Yet again, the various candidates have their differences. All support free trade, but are much more reserved about complete deregulation. The rhetoric from all sides has been protectionist and there has been a good deal of pandering to the electorate about the current economic woes. As the situation continues to worsen - as it surely will in the short and medium term - the backlash will become increasingly evident. China-bashing will most likely make a prominent return and foreign investors interested in US assets will come into additional difficulties reminiscent of the Dubai Ports takeover negotiations, or the failed UNOCAL deal. All candidates are likely to insist on a reduction in China’s vast trade surpluses with the US. Beijing is likely to be dragged before the World Trade Organisation (WTO) on a variety of trade disputes and the blunter instruments of sanctions and anti-dumping actions are likely to be employed: this is something on which Clinton, Obama and McCain agree.

John McCain will probably be less protectionist than either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, but the winds of change are against a strong American commitment to deepening and opening international trade.

Of course, there is always the possibility that our calculations could be overturned, but we doubt it. We believe that even at this early stage, the future policy of the US is already fairly clear. Political ideas come and go, like changing fashions. The prevailing fashion now is for a more humble, co-operative America, one which concentrates on its internal economic and social problems.

Although they might not agree on the candidates yet, one thing that the majority of the American electorate does agree on is that they want a change in how the US interacts with the rest of the world and how America is perceived. The former is assured; the latter may also come.

Dr Michael Williams is Head of the Transatlantic Programme at RUSI.

Dr Jonathan Eyal is Director of International Security Studies at RUSI.

The views expressed above are the authors' own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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